Even at SXSW in Austin, Texas, KONY 2012 is the topic of conversation. It was the elephant in the room during a panel on social documentary filmmaking and social media. Fortunately, the panelists addressed the elephant — more than once.
KONY 2012 is the massively viral YouTube video, directed and narrated by director Jason Russell who founded Invisible Children, that shines the spotlight on Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord who has been abducting children and turning them into soldiers and sex slaves. In the space of a few days, the video has become an international sensation, garnering almost 70 million views on YouTube and even triggering a response from the Ugandan government, which now plans to capture Kony. It has also drawn some criticism for potentially oversimplifying the issues, possibly encouraging “slacktivism” and turning Kony into a celebrity.
The panel’s assembled documentarians, though, chose to address the effectiveness of KONY 2012 as social documentary.
Ontario community manager and panel moderator Meghan Warby said the documentary was stripping away the politics to get to the actual conflict in Uganda.
Dorothy Engelman, who currently runs GetINvolved.Ca in Canada, spent 20 years as a producer and documentary maker. She recognizes that KONY 2012 used celebrity because that’s how you reach everyday people.
“This film is everything we need to talk about,” said Engelman, adding that it does raise questions about “the filmmaker as a point of view or subject.” She also acknowledged the backlash and believes part of it is because the filmmaker’s goal is to bring about change.
“So when you get this kind of half-a-billion dollars-worth of earned media you have to be able to be transparent.” She then quoted a favorite saying, “Transparent means you’re naked and when you’re naked, you better be buff.” In other words, you have to be ready to withstand the scrutiny. By Engelman’s measure, the Invisible Children Foundation, and its founder Russell, has been offering an answer for virtually every question.
Rob Dyer who makes online videos for his Canadian-based SkateforCancer cancer awareness organization, thinks KONY 2012 achieved its goal. “What was the purpose?” said Dyer, “The purpose was to make Kony famous. I think it served their goal. What happens now, we don’t know.”
Dyer, however, thinks, there’s a larger achievement here. “Now 13-25 year olds around the world are at least talking about it [strife in Uganda]. That’s the most important thing to come out of that film.”
The documentarians noticed something else interesting about the online video: It breaks a commonly-accepted online video rule. KONY 2012 is nearly a half-hour long. When the panelists asked the audience how many had seen the film, many raised their hands. When they asked if the audience members had watched the entire video, an almost equal number raised their hands.
According to Engelman, the rule of thumb with online video is that people stop watching after two minutes. She said that rule “has been proven wrong this week.”