Remember Invisible Children, the American NGO that brought the world Kony 2012, the most viral video of all time? It’s been awfully quiet since March, when founder Jason Russell was caught in a bizarre, public, naked meltdown. Now he’s back, with a candid Oprah Winfrey interview and another Kony-related film. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Invisible Children has had quite a year. In March it released Kony 2012, a video calling for the capture of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The call motivated young Americans to put up posters of Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), around their neighbourhoods, presumably in case he popped into the local Walmart to stock up on arms.
The 30-minute video didn’t just go viral: it redefined “viral”. As of mid September, it had received 93-million views, though it was unclear how many of those hits reflected people watching the film through to the end. (Watching a 30-minute film is equivalent to at least eight viewings of Gangnam Style, so it’s a pretty big ask, and you don’t end up with any new dance moves at all.)
In the first flush of Kony fever, celebrities fell over each other to praise Invisible Children and denounce Kony in yet more extravagant terms. “Dear Joseph Kony, I’m Gonna help Make you FAMOUS!!! We will stop YOU!” warned P Diddy over Twitter. Others took a more esoteric, but still stern, stance: “Let us not be weary in well doing for in due season we shall reap if we fade not,” tweeted MC Hammer on the subject, apparently channelling the Bible, if the Bible was written by people on a crystal meth binge.
The backlash began almost immediately from people who are either “haters” or “individuals who understood a thing or two about the LRA context and believed Invisible Children was drastically over-simplifying the issue”, depending on who you listen to. The Daily Maverick’s own Simon Allison penned a comprehensive takedown of the Kony 2012 video that proved enormously popular. As quickly as it had shot to fame, Invisible Children seemed to fall into infamy in many circles.
People started scrutinising its operating structures and finance. People began questioning why it was necessary for Jason Russell to appear quite so prominently in a film ostensibly about Ugandan children. Mean-spirited individuals like this writer dug up and circulated an old profile of Jason “Radical” Russell published in PMC Magazine, which reads like satire but apparently is not. In it, our hero gave pithy sound bites like, “If Oprah, Steven Spielberg and Bono had a baby, I would be that baby”, and described his future plans thus: “I am going to help end the longest running war in Africa, get Joseph Kony arrested & redefine international justice. Then I am going to direct a Hollywood musical. Then I am going to study theology & literature in Oxford, England, and then move to New York to start ‘The Academy’ – which will be a school where the best creative young minds in the world attend.” Read the whole thing at your peril.
Russell himself was on a mad talk show tour at the time, at one stage giving 17 interviews in 48 hours, tirelessly bouncing from one TV studio to the next in his red Kony 2012 T shirt. But his meteoric catapulting into the limelight took a terrible toll, and on 15 March Russell was detained by San Diego police after being found naked on a busy street, pounding the ground, screaming about God and hell, attacking cars and, according to some versions, masturbating. It wasn’t the best PR for a man leveraging a squeaky-clean image and an organisation frantically trying to prove it was in no way dodgy. A statement was released explaining that Russell’s episode had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of drugs, but rather an episode of “brief reactive psychosis brought on by extreme exhaustion, stress and dehydration”.
The Kony 2012 film had promised that on 20 April 20, young people from all over the world would “Cover the Night”, papering every block on every street with images of Kony’s face. It didn’t happen. Only a handful of people took part in Kony-related events in cities across the US. In Cape Town, about 30 youngsters did their bit for the cause, earning a congratulatory tweet from Invisible Children’s head office. But in general, the date was greeted as a massive flop. The dream had died. Somewhere on the Sudanese border, Joseph Kony chuckled.
Since then, everything has been quiet. Until last Sunday, which suddenly saw a flurry of Invisible Children activity: the airing of Jason Russell’s first post-meltdown public interview (with Oprah, of course) and the release of the organisation’s latest film, as if to further stress the point that Russell and its cause are utterly inextricable. The Oprah interview saw the talk show doyenne and Russell perch in armchairs at Russell’s home for a cosy chat. It’s the new format for Oprah’s show Oprah’s Next Chapter, and it doesn’t make for half as compelling viewing as during the good old days, when she was unleashed on her frantic, hysterical audience of baying women and would exhort them to look under their seats to retrieve gifts of cars or houses or Malawian babies.
Russell’s explanation to Oprah about why exactly he roamed the streets of San Diego naked and ranting must go down alongside Hansie Cronje’s “The Devil made me do it” on the list of genius excuses. “It really wasn’t me,” Russell explained earnestly. “But it was you, that was your body,” said Oprah, in piercing Christiane Amanpour style. He admitted that it was technically him, but not, y’know, spiritually. Or something like that. Oprah played the role of concerned therapist with furrowed brow, but every now and then sent in a 3rd Degree zinger: “Were you also masturbating? Did I hear that too?” she asked.
“There were rumours of masturbation, but no-one who was there ever said that that was happening,” said Russell, nervously adjusting his tie. “I mean, I’m naked, so it’s not a far extension of, y’know, imagination that that might be happening, but no, I don’t remember any of that.”
What’s the big lesson of the breakdown, Oprah wanted to know. Russell explained the big lesson was that someone, or something, was telling him: “I cannot be bothered with your ego.” Oprah loved that. “Yeaaaaaaah,” she said.
It’s interesting that Russell professes himself to have learned a critical lesson in humility, because the latest Kony film, released on the same night, shows no sign of him having absorbed that message at all.
The video, Move, is both an explanation of the next stage of the Kony 2012 campaign and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the making of the last film and the aftermath thereof. There are scenes of Jason Russell crying, because of the stress of it all, while his colleagues say things like “You know I love you, man”. There is Jason Russell giving further explanation of his breakdown, saying that having to answer the same questions again and again causes your mind to “lose track of who’s for you and who’s against you”. (Someone should test this thesis on government spokespeople.) There is “unposed” footage of Jason Russell confessing to having gained – gulp – 20 pounds over the past months. And so forth.
The film is clever, though, in that it takes the criticisms levelled against Invisible Children and pretends it is part of a wider conspiracy of opinion against what it calls “Millennials”, an extremely irritating term referring to people who came of age in the new millennium. There are absurd decontextualised clips of talking heads saying things like “The millennials are just not fit to live”, and Russell’s voiceover intones: “We have been told that our generation will accomplish nothing of value”.
This is, frankly, bollocks. If anything, there is greater pressure than ever today to achieve success at an ever-younger age. Justin Bieber is still bobbing in amniotic fluid and he could buy South Africa as a holiday home.
As in the famous earlier film, the new video puts all the pressure for apprehending Joseph Kony squarely on the shoulders of teenagers. Invisible Children Uganda Country Director Okot Jolly Andruvile is shown saying that since all previous attempts to catch Kony have failed (you know, with actual military interventions in the area), “It is now up to the young people around the world”. Goodness, Invisible Children. Trying to recruit young people into a dangerous armed struggle sounds like awfully, well, Kony-ish behaviour.
In fairness, it’s not just Invisible Children parroting this line. Venerable ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer is featured earnestly questioning: “Is it possible that the most powerful army today is not military, but a collection of celebrities, students and ordinary people trying to transform human rights around the world?” Let’s take a punt on that: probably not. I wouldn’t fancy their chances against the Chinese armed forces, even though they’d have Google in their arsenal.
If you’re a young person, though, consider this latest video your conscription papers. It ends with your instruction to report for duty in Washington on 17 November, when they are inviting 10 “key power states” to some sort of tea party to discuss Kony. And if the power states don’t show up, it’s not Invisible Children’s fault for having drastically overestimated their reach and influence, it’s your fault¸ you Millennial slacker. “If you do not get there and show them you care, their seats will remain empty,” Russell warned. So if you don’t go to Washington, the leaders won’t go to Washington, and then nobody will remember to catch Joseph Kony, and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself, and maybe they were right all along about Millennials being such a waste of space.
Do you want to help the children, or don’t you? Now buy another wristband and keep tweeting. There’s an awful lot at stake. DM
- New Invisible Children film ‘Move’, on its website
Photo: Jason Russell, co-founder of non-profit Invisible Children and director of "Kony 2012" viral video campaign, poses in New York, March 9, 2012. The director of a viral video that calls for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of Lord's Resistance Army militia group in Uganda, agreed on Friday with skeptics who have called the film oversimplified, saying it was deliberately made that way. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid