Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What are we doing here?

What are we doing here? from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

This is a documentary called "What are we doing here?"  It is an amateurish effort in many ways, such as the filmmakers' being wary of Rwanda as a dangerous place 20 years after the genocide, or not knowing that Somaliland existed.  I often found myself wondering why they saw fit to make a documentary about development aid in Africa despite having apparently done very little research and knowing very little about the subject beforehand.  I mean, plenty has been said already about the errors in development work, or the problems facing Africa, or the hope, or the hopelessness, or whatever other angle you could possibly think of regarding development, aid, and Africa (Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari, for example, follows the same Cairo to Cape Town route these filmmakers took, and his analysis is much more nuanced and thoughtful than theirs, albeit a bit snotty and cynical, as seems to be Theroux's wont). The film is also full of cliches like lots of images of flies landing on sickly kids, or having a circle of smiling AIDS orphans singing piercing African harmonies, or the outsider filmmaker breaking down and crying, overwhelmed with all of Africa's problems.  Also, the analysis of development aid as being largely ineffectual, done with little local consultation, and especially the stereotype of most African governments' depending on aid for a large part of their budget, is not very up to date as far as I know.  As I've documented in prior posts about the rapid economic development in many African countries, the image of Africa as a perennial basketcase continent is simply not accurate in 2012.  I guess when you rely on a handful of interviews with local NGO workers, and assume that their knowledge, interpretations, and priorities match those of their country as a whole, then it is very possible you get an outdated, narrow picture of the development context.  This is especially the case when you as a director bring very little prior knowledge to the film project.  Finally, I am not happy about the constant underlying tone that often subtly implies that aid recipients are on the whole manipulative or lazy.

All that said, it is a decent overview of some of the challenges, ambiguities, and conundrums surrounding the practice of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.  And perhaps the amateurism of the filmmakers even has a positive side.  Most people don't read extensively on the nuances and debates within the field of international development, and are in effect largely ignorant on the subject, so maybe the filmmakers bring the complexities of international development to the level of a general public without prior knowledge on the subject.  If you have a spare hour or two, you might want to check out "What are we doing here?"

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