04 October 2011

Continuing the Unwatchable Debate

The discussion about the advocacy film Unwatchable has expanded a bit with the latest argument coming from Guardian Development's Jonathan Glennie in support of the video. He writes:
Will the film be effective? The fact that it did not appear to motivate a few highly knowledgeable bloggers does not mean it won't generate a response outside the development policy elite. Shocking people can lead to action. The film induces emotions of pity as well as anger – both powerful forces.

Very few people who watch the film will feel less likely to act in favour of rape victims, but quite a lot will probably be more likely to act because of it. Of course, it will not be for everyone, but it is likely to reach some people who have never before considered the issue.

If the critics are right, and the film proves ineffective, why are they so angry about it? Lots of advocacy is ineffective but does not provoke such strong responses. Some of the film's critics have implied that its images are unacceptable because they make you feel uncomfortable or ill. But the sensitivities of those watching the film are not of particular concern when the issue is so important. It strikes me that some would simply prefer the realities of war not to be brought home to a western public living relaxed lives on a seemingly different planet. I think they should be – we should be reminded of what is happening in other parts of the world, to shake us from our daily routine, and to galvanise us into response.
His argument boils down to the idea that it such advocacy will end in one of two responses. On one hand, people will be so moved by video that they will act within the range of simply signing the petition to becoming an activist against conflict minerals and violence in the DRC. The second seems to be one of indifference. Those who see it and are not moved will continue on with their lives uncaring and/or unaware.

Criticism is dismissed and I believe it is warranted because there is another outcome of advocacy: a warped understanding of a problem. A study by VSO examined this very problem in Britain by looking at how the advocacy push of Live Aid and the years since have shaped public understanding of poverty and the continent of Africa. One of the findings was that 80% of the British public strongly associate the developing world with doom-laden images of famine, disaster and Western aid."

Additionally, the study finds that the idea persists that "we are powerful, benevolent givers; they are grateful receivers." In the context of the Save the Congo campaign, is it possible that the movie makes people think that those living in the DRC are helpless and that it is our responsibility to be the 'benevolent givers?'

What happens when they start seeing more of the story? "When consumers are presented with an alternative view of the developing world they often express anger and a feeling of being conned or misled. The target for this anger is mainly the media, and occasionally development charities, who are seen as the main sources of information."

Rape and war is not an alternative view of the DRC or even Africa as a whole. It has been used time and again to show abject poverty. True, it is a very terrible part of the reality but it is far more of a norm for audiences to see these images rather than ones of say children learning in school.

The makers of Unwatchable argue that we need to be shocked into action. For some this may be true, but for others it might further push them towards a single understanding of poverty in the DRC.  Could it be possible that by portraying poverty in such basic ways is making it harder to get people to act or care?

A lot of this argument rests on conjecture, but the evidence seemingly points at the problems with continuing the same advocacy messaging. Does Unwatchable do more harm than good? I can't say for sure in either direction, but the VSO study seems to show that there is a chance. The burden is on the producers of such campaigns to show that they can in fact not only get people to act but give them an understanding of global poverty so that they will become more globally aware.

One thing we know for sure is that the way poverty is portrayed has a significant impact on people.  Why assume that it can only produce positive results?

I encourage people to read the full VSO report here.