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‘Immersive’ video lets you watch South Sudanese starve

‘Immersive’ video lets you watch South Sudanese starve

By Chris Douglas

Today’s documentaries love showing South Sudan as a war-ravaged alien world. Surely the intent is not to deny South Sudanese people the right to choose how they are depicted, to drown out their own voice…in effect to deny them their dignity and agency. But isn’t that what’s happening?

First there was Hubert Sauper’s We Come As Friends, taking the audience to South Sudan in a homemade airplane like it was a UFO. The country’s “strangeness penetrates you,” Sauper announces at the beginning of the film. “From now on you’re a complete stranger, you’re an alien.” Like a UFO hovering above the earth, Sauper’s documentary arguably kept its distance from the reality of life in South Sudan.

Now there’s On the Brink of Famine, a Facebook-hosted virtual reality mini-documentary from filmmaker Marcelle Hopkins about food scarcity in South Sudan. Using GoPro cameras, Hopkins and her team let the audience experience South Sudan like an invisible alien flying eye. Clicking and dragging the screen, viewers can see everything in the scene except one crucial thing – themselves.

fly sudan
Eyes of a robber fly. Photo from Thomas Shahan (Flickr).
What’s wrong with this picture?

Like Sauper’s We Come as Friends, On the Brink of Famine presents the audience with a false reality of South Sudan. At one point the narrator tells us that “in 2013, a power struggle between the President and his former deputy ignited a civil war, starting the country on the road to famine.”

That’s not just a tremendously misleading description of why it’s hard for most South Sudanese people to grow and purchase enough food, it’s also unfair to the South Sudanese and it does nothing to create a solution.

crops sudan
Dry, wilting crops. Photo from Laurie McGregor (Flickr).

1. Food is scarce in South Sudan because of a history of exploitation. Just as North American and European countries exploited and exacerbated the disadvantages of African countries, South Sudan was long despoiled by the North Sudanese, the Egyptians and the Ottoman Empire.

2. Food is scarce in South Sudan because of dysfunctional global industries – especially the aid industry:

– More money is spent flying food into South Sudan than trying to grow it locally.

– Since before 2009, international partners including the USA and UK let South Sudan’s elites direct millions of dollars away from agriculture and instead into patronage networks (i.e. corruption) and military spending.

– Someone thought it a better use of funds to create a VR documentary about famine instead of sponsoring a farmer — consider the cost of the film (e.g. GoPro Hero3+ cameras, batteries, memory cards, transport and accommodations for crew, editing) when just one camera costs at least $300, not to mention accessories.

3. Food is scarce in South Sudan because of underdeveloped markets and infrastructure. A farmer in Maridi has a surplus harvest and wants to sell it in Jonglei where there’s a shortage, but this is almost impossible because there’s a lack of reliable roads, fuel, storage and refrigeration.

nothing left sudan
“Nothing left”. Photo from Laurie McGregor (Flickr).

4. Food is scarce in South Sudan because of fluctuating weather patterns and global climate changes — man-made and natural. This complicates an area already made both fertile and frustrating by nature; the environment that is so great for growing crops is also great for mosquitoes, harsh tropical heat and crop-destroying pests.

Only on top of and in relation to all that, food is scarce in South Sudan because of the on-going challenge to create a functioning democratic government.

Cinema of omission: what gets left out

Another crucial reason why food is scarce in South Sudan is because of where donors and the media direct attention – to death, dependence and destruction. These are the stories that get the money, so that’s where the money goes. Bleeding is leading. So we’re now watching the blood flow in South Sudan on cinema with surround sound and on computer screens with an interactive 360-degree perspective.

cinema sudan
Cinema. Photo from Kenneth Lu (Flickr).

Also, notice that when documentaries like On the Brink of Famine talk about good things happening it involves foreign intervention. Doctors Without Borders. The United Nations. The problems, though? That’s where the South Sudanese come in.

To some this is a form of media-journalistic colonialism. Dr. Mamdani, from the Makerere Institute of Social Research, discusses the use of academic data, stating, “The global market tends to relegate Africa to providing raw material (“data”) to outside academics who process it and then re-export their theories back to Africa […] collaboration is reduced to assistance.” Mamdani talks about “treating every experience with intellectual dignity”, putting those experiences in context, and not just looking at what’s happening but also at how we see what’s happening.

It’s not a stretch to interpret “data” as action, characters, images, video or audio – the narrative or story about reality in African countries. Are we relegating African country residents to the dramatis personae in our art and documentaries? That’s why there is a debate over who has the right to tell the “narrative” or “story” about what happens in African countries.

Watching the southern sunrise

Just think, what a difference it would make if money currently used for covering “bad” news and promoting ineffective aid projects instead went to local farmers, entrepreneurs and social innovators, and to stories documenting their experiences?

sunrise sudan
Sunrise. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The viewer has no constructive way to help when they watch an immersive 360-degree view of food aid drops or overwhelmed hospitals. If they don’t write the situation off as hopeless they may — worse still — become part of the problem through voluntourism or the ‘White Saviour’ movement.

Movements and groups like Stop the Pity (Mama Hope) and Invisible Borders are working on this. There are others. There should be many more.

It’s not as if South Sudanese people with good stories don’t exist. In 2015 a pair of South Sudanese cooperatives made natural honey and shea butter their country’s first export to the USA. Before that, a South Sudanese cooperative opened the country’s first major domestic grinding mill for maize and flower. There’s a South Sudanese women’s group, ROOTS of South Sudan, not only running the country’s first art cooperative but also displaying their wares at fashion shows in New York and Los Angeles.

Imagine what progress such groups could be making if they were the target of more money and media attention. Instead of documenting famine in a misinformed context, we could actively participate in the emergence of South Sudan’s economy.

We don’t need more ways to show a passive audience the problems in countries like South Sudan. We need stories and technology that help create solutions, and that turn the audience into investors and partners for folks like the people of South Sudan.

A previous version of this post first appeared on the author’s personal blog.

In addition to writing online as “Rogue Aider”, Chris Douglas is an Africa-focused social entrepreneur, founder of 501(c)3 Lone Star – Africa Works, and co-founder of Rio Nile Cooperative Trading. He works with several of the South Sudanese cooperatives mentioned above, but he works with them *because* they’re successful and not the other way around. You can follow him on twitter @rogue_aider.

Featured image shows a GoPro 360 degree camera. Photo from vrscout.com.

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