What’s behind the West’s fascination with “saving” Africa? What really happens when Americans go to Africa to “help?” Why do Western media outlets consistently paint Africans as helpless victims?
These are the questions filmmaker Cassandra Herrman and anthropologist (and Africa Is a Country contributor) Kathryn Mathers plan to explore in their upcoming documentary, FRAMED. Their Kickstarter campaign, which will fund travel, filming, and editing costs, has eight more days to raise an additional $6,519.
I recently had the chance to talk with Cassandra and Kathryn about mainstream perceptions of Africa, the inspiration behind the film, and what they hope it will accomplish.
How did you come up with the idea for the film? What pushed you to want to make a documentary about perceptions of Africa and Western aid?
Kathryn: My Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley was about how travel influences Americans’ ideas and attitudes toward Africa and Africans, what they learn, what facilitates that learning, and whether travel and cross-cultural connections can genuinely change the way people think. My research was driven by my encounter with American ideas and attitudes toward Africa and South Africa when I first came to Berkeley to study anthropology. I met Cassandra while doing my fieldwork with American travellers to Southern Africa. We really believed that the increased circulation of images of suffering Africans in the absence of alternative images, especially in mainstream media, needed to be addressed. Not just because these are false and troubling images in and of themselves, but because they generate ideas about Africans that limit the way we engage and invest in African countries and people.
Cassandra: I have spent a significant portion of my career telling stories about Africa in a medium where, more often than not, outsiders mediate the continent. I grew compelled to re-channel my creative energy toward reversing that lens and working on projects that explore how representations inform personal actions and policy decisions. As a former volunteer in Kenya, I understand the appeal of “Africa” to young Americans, and I’m empathetic to their desire to go there. But as a consumer of Western media, and through my work as a journalist, I’m acutely aware of the damage caused by representations of Africa.
Who do you see as the intended audience of the film?
Cassandra: Our target audience is young people, primarily in America, but also in Europe and Africa. We’re trying to speak to people who have a humanitarian impulse and challenge them to think more about the stories and images that drive their actions.
Our vision is to create a social media space and web portal for young Americans and Africans to connect, have a collaborative dialogue about representation and social action, and build better ways to engage in and support meaningful change on both continents. The film and media campaign will challenge young people to think critically about social actions, from KONY2012 and Save Darfur to (RED) and TOMS Shoes. We believe the film will also appeal to a range of people who care about Africa or about America’s role in the world today. That includes: the many Americans who travel to Africa or plan to work as humanitarian volunteers; college and high school programs; media organizations; think tanks and policymakers; and the growing number of organizations who are increasingly concerned with the imprint of their work in Africa.
What effect do you hope the film will have?
Cassandra & Kathryn: Images and stories of Africa as a tragic continent requiring salvation have inundated Western television, film, and advertising, and we hope our documentary can contribute to the body of work countering those representations. It intends to hold up a mirror to the collective imagination of Africa that we have in America, and spark a conversation about why it exists, who it serves and how, and what we need to do to change it.
We really want to make it possible for young American activists and Africans to have a completely different conversation. We also want to motivate Americans to think about how they need to change politics and business at home, both as a way to improve their own communities and as a way to think about the challenges of poverty in Africa from a different perspective, one that takes into account that it is not ‘natural’ to Africa but is affected by policy and investment choices made in many other parts of the world. Perceptions of Africa have real-world implications – they drive public opinion, business practice, and foreign policy.
FRAMED features several people from South Africa and Kenya. Do you think their stories and commentary are applicable to the rest of the continent?
Kathryn: We have had a real challenge throughout the planning and making of this film, in trying to say something about the relationship between Africa and America without essentializing either place and especially without treating Africa as a single space, in the way the narrative we are challenging does. We have considered and begun work in Ghana and Nigeria and have really struggled to tell a complex transcontinental story.
Ultimately, we had to focus in on specific sites, and the conjunction of two very different kinds of activists and artists like Boniface Mwangi (Kenyan photographer, activist, and founder of Picha Mtaani and PAWA254) and Binyavanga Wainina (Kenyan writer and author of, among many things, a satire on Western writing about Africa) in one country felt very powerful. While they are not meant to stand in for or represent other parts of Africa in a statistical sense, we do believe that by showing their work and putting them in conversation with Americans, we can change the way Africa is thought about and talked about among young Americans who want to do good.
One of the problems mentioned in the trailer is that narratives of Africa are often over-simplified, as in the case of KONY2012. Do you think there is a way for journalists and activists to avoid over-simplifying stories of Africa but still compel people to read, understand, and care about the issues?
Kathryn: Absolutely. A good story about a local community organization or activist is a good story. In working with my students, I have found that they are desperate for these stories, for an understanding of what is happening on the ground, for some way to access specific people’s lives and understand how to help them do their work. The dominance of the “white savior” narrative has made this harder than it should be, but it can be replaced. There are compelling and seductive stories for journalists to tell about so many aspects of life in so many African countries, but it does require perhaps an additional investment in particular places and less reporting from a regional perspective.
Cassandra: People can handle a little complexity, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of a compelling narrative. I think a lot of those stories do exist – they’re just not given the spotlight that the “white savior” narratives are.
Can you recommend any websites or publications that you think do a good job of portraying Africa?
Cassandra & Kathryn: There are, of course, many, but a few that we would recommend are:
If you want to see this film get made, be sure to join me and 355 other backers in supporting the Kickstarter campaign (and get some cool rewards!) before it ends on July 12.