Archive for March, 2012

Kony2012: The Most Resilient Parasite

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

“What’s the most resilient parasite? An Idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” (Cobb. Inception).

Inception – for the few who haven’t seen it – is a film about entering a person’s subconscious during a dream state and implanting an idea that plays on emotional hooks and then triggers a course of action from that person in the real world. Which is Kony2012 to a tee.

The Kony2012 film, the impact of it and reaction to it feels like a significant moment – largely because it’s been engineered that way. Which is partly what makes me so uncomfortable about it. The film raises too many questions – about the content, the organisation behind it, its methods and techniques, the role of social media and what this all says about our understanding of it. The only way I can process this right now is a shot-by-shot analysis. Bear with me …
00:00
Kony2012 opens with a quote – “Nothing is more powerful than an idea”. Makes me think of Chris Nolan’s Inception – (see comments above). Possibly this is deliberate.00:07
The full quote fades in :
“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”

The original quote was by Victor Hugo, although the fact it is not attributed suggests to the viewer that it’s the filmmaker’s own wisdom. Which perhaps gives an early indication of the self-aggrandisement that follows.
00:11
Scratchy film and black and white visuals. This also recurs later in the film. There’s something strangely focusing and hypnotic about this. It suggests messages coming through the ether from long ago – scratchy vinyl records, archive recordings, something long-forgotten but deeply encoded that we somehow feel is Important. Subliminal flash of the red V (victory?)-shaped inverted pyramid somewhere around 00:14 – 00:15. This whole sequence is, effectively, implanting a visual reference point that you’ll be pulled back to when it’s repeated later in the film. More on this later.
00:25
Shots of the Earth at night. “Right now there are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet 200 years ago”. Subtle, single piano chords and voice-over (VO). This is all tone-setting. It says “This involves the whole world. This is meaningful”. It also says “welcome to the new world. Planet Facebook”. Ahhh! Wistfully thinking of the SXSWi panel that never was
00:39

“Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect”. Lots of shots of people hugging children, older parents at airports etc. Subtle piano tones coming back in with audio FX of scratches again as the filmmaker starts to ramp up the emotional manipulation. The phrase “I love you” repeated a couple of times by children on webcams etc. This quickly cuts to the YouTube logo, the Share and Embed button and lots of quick edits of people sharing seminal YouTube videos of great emotional impact and human triumph over adversity. This juxtaposition is significant. It builds on the opening ‘Planet Facebook’ message and cements a deep emotional connection with – and a love of – social media and its most popular tools and mechanisms …notably YouTube and Facebook, sharing and embedding. The call-to-action is clear and we dutifully responded ….hence 65m views in five days.

At this point, I’m starting to think this might be one of those Google Chrome “Web Is What You Make Of It” ads, (no doubt it soon will be). I’m also starting to wonder which organisations contributed to the $4.76m of donations and $5m of funds released from restrictions that Invisible Children received in 2011, especially the “very strong and unexpected revenue near fiscal year end” (published accounts, p. 13 ). Again, I’ll come back to this later.

If Invisible Children was actually visible about its accounts and transparent about its backing, (which it’s not ), I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find contributions from Google/YouTube and possibly Facebook/Zuckerberg, given how prominently they feature throughout the video and how brilliantly it promotes their products and agenda. Most interestingly, whatever its political impact, this is undoubtedly a landmark video for YouTube and its long-form content strategy . Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the viral growth of Kony2012, (at the time of writing, nearly 65m views in five days), is that this is no throwaway, 60 second video-snack of cats playing pianos. It’s a 29 minute film that deals with some weighty issues. Can anyone think of any other long-form film that’s gone so massively viral, so quickly? YouTube will be loving this.

01:17
“And this connection is changing the way the world works”. Cue twitter. Arab Spring. And …

01:21
Random Arab guy with subtitled quote “Now we can taste the freedom“. Instantly cuts to a shot of another Arab guy holding a hand-made cardboard sign that says simply “Facebook”. The connection between “tasting the freedom” and “Facebook” again makes me wonder what this is really promoting.

There is, of course, a huge difference between the Arab Spring and the role played by social media and what Kony2012 is trying to do. The Arab Spring came from the ground up. It was the people of Egypt and Tunisia who started this and social media was used worldwide to amplify it. Kony2012 is white middle-class American filmmakers finding their own half-baked solution and trying to impose it on the world. I’m not going to go into too much detail on this one as it’s being done better, by people who know more about it than me here , here, , here, on Charlie Beckett’s Polis blog and on the Guardian’s excellent “what’s the story” here. And for more insight into the impact and effect, rights and wrongs, of social media on Arab Spring listen to Clay Shirky’s excellent talk from SXSWi 2011, Why Would We Think Social Media is Revolutionary?.

01:25

This is where Kony2012 identifies and addresses its target audience. This is aimed squarely at young people ….

VO: “….and older generations are concerned”.

Lots of shots of older newsreaders and commentators, who – judging by the downward-trending graphs behind them – seem to be talking about the economic collapse, looking very worried and saying things like “many people are very concerned about tomorrow“, “things could get worse next year” etc. This is all entirely out-of-context. What does concern over the economy have to do with Kony, this campaign or how people, (not just the young), are using social media? The filmmaker seems to be suggesting that older generations are concerned because they don’t get the power of social media or the fact that it “is changing the way the world works“. These images do not support this thesis.

I’m uncomfortable with this for many reasons – not just the misleading inappropriateness of the images. Of course, I can’t discount the fact that I could just be pissed off by the implication that I don’t ‘get’ social media because I almost certainly fall into that ‘older generation’ category. But it’s more than that. Targeting a campaign at a young audience is one thing – and totally understandable. But why alienate an older audience and imply – and suggest to your audience – they won’t get it? My concern here is that this is a pre-emptive strike. The filmmakers, perhaps fearing the kind of inevitable backlash from an older, more cynical generation, have encoded a subtle message here to ignore those who question this film, Invisible Children or its motives. Because they’re not like ‘us’, they’re not part of this … they just don’t get it.

This is the first example of protective armouring the film uses to teflon-coat itself. There are more, which I’ll discuss later.

01:32
Black screen. Timecode, counting down. VO: “The game has new rules. The next 27 minutes are an experiment“. This fulfils a number of functions….

(1) Having set the tone, established the importance of everyone being connected, made us feel that because we are connected we have some kind of link to movements like the Arab Spring and set up the rules of engagement as “you’re either young, connected and get this or old, scared and don’t”, the countdown acts like a lock-in. If you get it, you must keep watching. Similar lock-in techniques are used later in the film.
(2) This is a timecode counting down, which – of course – video timecodes don’t. This is about setting a sense of urgency and suggests an event or action, (ie ours), when the countdown reaches zero.
(3) The ‘experiment’ bit is important. This acts as the filmmaker’s Get Out Of Jail Free card should the campaign fail in its main objective. Doesn’t matter. It was all just an experiment. And anyway …..


01:38

“In order for it to work, you have to pay attention”
In other words, if it doesn’t work … it’s your fault.This is also another one of those lock-in techniques. The language here reminds me of the kind of thing we’ve been reading in those bullshit chain letters and chain emails for years. “Don’t break the chain”. “In order for this to work you have to do x, y or z”. It’s a technique designed to make you feel that if you don’t do what you’re being asked to do then you’re not only letting yourself down, but all those other people who you’ve just been made to feel connected with too. Language reinforced by the first re-appearance of those scratchy, black-and-white, archive type visuals, audio FX and a few subliminal flashes of the images to come. Remember: This is Important.Pre-amble over, this is where the main narrative is about to kick in. Before we get into this, let’s take a quick recap of what’s just happened …. but maybe take a quick look at what changingminds.org has to say about some of the techniques of hypnotism first. Kony2012 has hit the first four or five on the list in the opening intro of the film …
Affirmation : We’re all connected and this is a great thing
Ambiguity : Many meanings happening at once
Confirmation : Look at that Arab Spring stuff and those images of loving families getting closer. This stuff works, right?
Fixing Attention : The scratchy archive stuff. The audio FX. “You have to pay attention”
Hand-Clasp : In this case, it’s happening in a metaphorical sense. This is those lock-in techniques.OK. So you’re prepped. Time for Inception …01:55 – 02:38
Intro over. This is where the main narrative starts. Shots of the birth of a new baby. Soft, melodic piano now playing throughout the sequence as an emotional bed. On first viewing I thought this was random footage, but – no – this is the birth of the filmmaker’s son, who will later play a starring role in all of this. More on that later. For now, let’s treat this as a metaphorical birth. Birth of an idea, birth of a movement etc. And at 02:22 the filmmaker also uses it to reinforce that opening message that we are all connected; “Every single person started this way”. Immediately after this line we are told “He didn’t choose where he was born ….etc” . It’s a clunky switch from this being a representative birth – effectively representing you and me and “every single person” – to being an individual with an identity, this is a “he”. And we are told that “he matters”. This is both an introduction to the filmmaker and his family, but also to the filmmaker’s narcissistic insistence on placing himself at the centre of this story…02:38 – 04:01

“My name is Jason Russell and this is my son, Gavin…. and just like his Dad, he likes being in movies and making movies”

Alarm bells are now ringing with me. Their volume increases around 03:21 where we see shots of some of the fun home movies they’ve made together, including home-made special effects shots of missiles firing in on random human targets. Nothing necessarily wrong with this per se – it’s just the kind of fun vid a kid might make with his dad – but it is a curious and ill-advised inclusion here, given the message that’s to follow about promoting military intervention in someone else’s country.

This whole home movie footage, which starts with a focus on young Gavin and instills the message that “it’s all about a better world for our kids” then switches focus back to Jason “Radical” Russell, (that’s his choice of middle name, not mine). Shots of him talking passionately at conferences because he “knows a way to get there”. More self-aggrandisement, with slight overtones of a messianic complex that also features heavily in that PMc Magazine piece.

04:01 – 04:18

Introducing Jacob. There are clips playing of Jason with Jacob but the dominant imagery is that of the films playing in a Facebook timeline, again putting the social network front-and-centre with a starring role in this film. This is very directly – and very deliberately – appealing to a clearly defined target audience. Young consumers of social media. When I showed this film to a group of 16 year old BOA students on Thursday they remarked how they liked this aspect of it as it talked to them with visuals they could relate to. So they ‘bond’ more readily with Jason, with Gavin, with Jacob…. these people live in a world that they recognise.

These early clips of Jacob show him having fun with Jason … at Sea World, watching the Dolphins, laughing with Gavin. He’s in a good place … and this all helps with the audience bonding too. We feel good about him.

04:18 – 04:40

“But when my friends I first met him in Uganda, in Central Africa, it was in very different circumstances. He was running for his life”

Visuals still very much influenced by the online world, with a map zoom on Uganda from Google Earth. Music changes tone, segueing into slightly darker audio FX as we whoosh slowly in on the map. This tells us that things are about to get serious. Hold on to your hats, people.

04:44 – 05:45

Full-screen clip of Jason’s first meeting with Jacob. At 04:44 they are interrupted by a man saying “you are making our work here very difficult”. It is not clear who this man is or why he has stopped them filming. The implication is that he is an official from the dark side, trying to stop the heroic Russell from changing the world, but he could equally be an aid worker trying to do some real good. Worth reading this take on this moment from Mareike Schomerus, author of “Chasing the Kony Story” and “A Terrorist is Not A Person Like Me : An Interview with Joseph Kony”.
The footage cuts to various clips of film – shot to a better standard than the first clip of meeting Jacob – where we learn from him of the story of children abducted and killed. More shots of dozens of Ugandan children sleeping head-to-tail in huge groups and shots of others on the run in the dark. Music is all melancholic and manipulative strings. Poignant fade to black.05:45 – 06:00

Point-of-View (POV) driving shots, with audio of what we assume is Jason Russell’s immediate reaction to what he has been told by Jacob …“I cannot believe that. This has been going on for years? If that happened one night in America it would be on the cover of Newsweek”.This is Russell setting up the motivation – and justification – for his own organisation’s chosen response. The focus of his ire is not that it has happened or that Uganda’s President Museveni allowed it to happen, but that he – and his fellow Americans – didn’t know about it because it isn’t in the media. Consequently, the focus of their activity – from the Invisible Children website – is to “make documentaries, tour them around the world and lobby our nation’s leaders to make ending this conflict a priority”.06:00 – 07:28
More interview footage with Jacob. Clearly taken during a later visit. He is smiling and talking of his original ambition to be a lawyer, talking hopefully about a future. This cuts to another interview with him where the mood is markedly different. He tells Russell that “It is better when you kill us”. It’s a brutal, but hugely effective, cut between these two interviews, starkly contrasting a young person’s early hopes for the future with the reality that he now feels he has none. It’s difficult to be certain, but Jacob looks older in the first, hopeful interview. Irrespective of whether this level of manipulation in montage has been employed, the filmmaker’s hand is clearly at work in cutting these two interviews so close together for maximum emotional impact. There is no music through any of this. The focus is very much on the words and on the emotion that is inherent in the sequence. No additional help is needed to enhance this. It fades to black as Jacob starts to cry, with Russell’s voice offering the only whispered reassurance. “It’s Okay. Jacob …. It’s Okay“.07:34
Russell makes what sounds like a very heartfelt promise to Jacob :
We are also going to doing everything in our power to stop them…. we are. We are going to stop them”
Russell is off-screen and the promise is made off-camera, which leaves this remarkable promise open to potential criticism that it could have been added in post. However, the audio sounds genuine and Jacob appears to be responding to Russell’s words directly. It is unlikely that this is faked, although the possibility remains.07:54
The final line “we are going to stop them” is repeated with a subtle echo effect as the image transitions from the old interview footage to still photos in an album of Jacob smiling, with hand-written captions reading “16 more days till we meet ……again”. The visuals and echo effect combine to give the impression of the passage of time and the continuation of a long friendship. The fact that Jacob is smiling in the photos suggests that the friendship has been beneficial and his life has improved, which neatly sets up the next sequence of shots showing what we assume to be the reason for this improvement. A sequence of stills of Russell (presumably) at demos, talking through megaphones, (indicating that he is a prominent voice at these demos), with accompanying VO twice referring to his “fight” to fulfil his promise to Jacob. At 08:18 there is a shot of Russell with his left arm tightly around Jacob, holding a prosumer camcorder up in his right arm. Behind them is a hand-written poster headed “GOALS” with seven bullet-pointed aims. The shot is poorly focused so it is impossible to tell what any of the goals are.08:21
“That promise is not just about Jacob. Or me. It’s also about you”
This statement is accompanied by a shot featuring a mosaic of approximately 200 photos of young people – representing the “you” Russell is referring to. As far as it is possible to tell, not one of these young people are African-American or black. This is especially significant given the criticisms that the Kony2012 campaign has loud echoes of “White Man’s Burden”.

(work-in-progress …. never completed. Pleased with the idea and the progress. Not pleased with massive time commitment -vs- benefits. The point was already made.)