All posts by Stuart Meney

Moving Pictures

Sat in a seminar in late 2009, discussion was put on hold so the class could watch a short film about the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Ten years previous, during an account of a particularly ghastly gassing incident described by Wilfred Owen in a First World War poetry class, we powered our way through the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. I vaguely remember the teacher suggest that we could learn how creativity can blossom  in the most dire of circumstance (or something like that), as she sat in the back of the class reading the paper.

Both films were to act as a supplement helping us to visualise what normally we only get to read, on paper or on our computer screen.

And so to ‘Diary’, an incredible short film (worth 20 minutes of your life) made over a 10-year period by war reporter Tim Hetherington. He calls it “a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media”.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington.

The images he captures are haunting, funny, distressful, beautiful and above all, incredibly real. Part of the film follows the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group. As the boy smiles  and clasps his weapon (1 minute 45 seconds in) before returning to his game face, Wilfred Owen’s words – written almost a century earlier – speak volumes:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country).

The powerful nature of visuals provide a snippet of the happenings in our world and make us question our preconceptions. TIME magazine writer Peter Van Agtmael sums up why it is necessary, suggesting that Hetherington was able to make “a distant and abstract conflict become personal and relatable, and the great complexity of our troubled species is laid bare without judgement or pretence”.

Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya last week striving to lay bare the complexities of our troubled species so people like me can supplement written words with moving pictures.

Ambassador’s Reception

Last week I spent time with the organisation I work with, Football United, at a project we run in Granville, one of the mostunderprivileged communities in one of the world’s most affluent cities, Sydney. It is Football United’s fourth year in Granville, running programs that engage Indigenous, refugee and migrant youth through football, whilst promoting leadership and development opportunities and facilitating relationships with community organisations, partners and mentors.

At this particular project, we were joined by  Monique Coleman, star of High School Musical and numerous other American TV Series that are aimed at a youthful audience. Thanks Wikipedia. The reasons for her attendance were two-fold (or possibly one-fold parts i and ii): promoting “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding”, topic of discussion in the United Nations International Year of Youth 2011 and promoting her own website “dedicated to empowering today’s youth”. She was a great communicator, friendly and, for the most part, aware of a set of appropriate issues that concern youth today: bullying, homelessness, multicultural society and so on.

It’s easy to bemoan the presence of an ambassador by implying that they undermine the efforts of those on the ground – whether local or not – spending each day doing what they do: medicine, teach, advocate, build. Billy Celebrity jets in for a day with his camera troupe, hugs a kid, conducts interview and photoshoot, probably wearing a pair of jeans that cost him more than any of his co-stars will see in a lifetime and probably made around the corner by a factory that exploits the community with sub-standard pay and no bathroom breaks. Everyone’s in on it. I remember seeing a list of sports stars employed as ambassadors. If you’d ever ran, kicked a ball or danced on ice, you were good to go. It was all too easy, the market was saturated. Hollywood too, spearheaded recently by George Clooney and friends, who are monitoring troops along the North/South Sudanese border to much criticism from “the international humanitarian blogosphere’s snark brigade“. “Bono-basher-in-chief William Easterly” is concerned about celebrity wonks getting too cosy with the policy-makers when they could use their powers to challenge the leaders, like John Lennon and Mark Twain did in the good old days.

So what? If UNICEF want attention and if Billy Celebrity can direct attention then that’s cool. What they drawing attention to, I suppose is relevant. To advocate for children and support UNICEF’s mission to “ensure every child’s right to health, education, equality and protection”. Maybe. Or maybe it’s to promote a new haircut. I’m inclined to be cynical like the afore mentioned snark brigade, in a world where video and sound-bites rule, these ambassadorial visits could be nothing but effective celebrity brand management.

I’d like to think, however, that I’ve developed my perceptions and opinion from, among other things, experience. I don’t have much, but what experience I do have of UN ambassadors, it’s hugely positive. I have nothing but gratitude for the minor celebrity that graced our project in Western Sydney. Her message was relevant, albeit a tad standardised. The big gains though, were for our project, and consequently – hopefully – the youth in the Granville community. Students who were previously unaware became aware of leadership and education opportunities, networks were expanded, ideas exchanged and influential policy makers turned up. Some even listened. All in all, last Monday was a positive experience for community-based, community-driven development.