When Jedidiah Jenkins and the rest of the team at Invisible Children put their Kony 2012 mini-doc on YouTube and Vimeo on Monday, their goal was to get 500,000 views before 2013. Four days later, the video has garnered 52 million views, due in large part to its success on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and news sites around the world. Even gossip sites like Radar got in on the action, publishing "7 Things You Should Know About Joseph Kony" next to stories about Lindsay Lohan. But not all the attention was favorable. While Invisible Children’s film introduced millions to Joseph Kony and the atrocities of his Lord’s Resistance Army, dozens of scholars and critics have derided it as simplistic, erroneous, and colonialist. Others call Invisible Children "manipulative."
Invisible Children has already taken to its website to address some of the criticism. But GOOD conducted one of the first interviews in which Jenkins, director of ideology for Invisible Children and a major part of the film's production, takes us deeper into exactly what his organization hopes to accomplish with Kony 2012. We've omitted the part when Jenkins had to take another call from the infamous celebrity site TMZ. What a difference a week makes.
GOOD: What was the origin of the now-world-famous Kony video?
JEDIDIAH JENKINS: We’ve made 10 documentaries before this one, and we’ve toured them around high schools and colleges since 2006. We’ve built a groundswell of grassroots support through our other films. But the reality is we would work so hard, and make all these videos, and pour so much effort into them, and they would get 3,000 views. But then a video with a cat flushing a toilet gets 40 million views. That left us going, "What are we doing wrong?" And one day, one of our colleagues said, "Man, this would be so much easier of we could make Joseph Kony famous and get people to actually know who he is. We wouldn’t have to fight so hard to get attention on these issues in Uganda." That was the inspiration. After that, our goal was to make a movie you could watch online, that’s entertaining, and that tells the story in a digestible way. And we had no idea how hungry the global audience was for that.
GOOD: A lot of nonprofits work forever without getting this kind of viral success. How do you think you did it?
JENKINS: There are a lot of good documentaries out there that paint a well-told story about something that’s wrong with the world. But one of the things about high-class documentaries is that they rarely presume to propose an answer; they just beautifully articulate the problem. And we hate that. You’re left going, “Ok, yes, I hate fracking. Now what am I supposed to do about it?”
What we did was paint moral clarity and provide direct action steps. There are no credits or anything else. We presented the problem and then ended the film with three steps to help people make a change. That resonates with people. The third step was as simple as sharing the film. People can do that.
GOOD: Out of all the myriad problems facing Africa, why did you choose to focus on Kony?
JENKINS: Firstly, the story was personal to us. We went to Africa intending to document the tragedies in South Sudan, and on our way we stumbled into children running away from Joseph Kony. The outrage that nothing was being done to stop that, and much of the international community was ignorant to it, was a lot of the impetus. But as we got deeper, we found out that Kony was the first man that the International Criminal Court had ever indicted. They said that because of the perversity of his crimes, and because of the feasibility of his arrest, he should be a flagship example of international cooperation to stop a criminal who crosses borders. The ICC chose Kony, and we’ve kind of partnered with them in an unofficial way. We’ve decided to help them disseminate that ideology to a hungry, millennial, global-minded youth.
GOOD: One of the criticisms people have of Invisible Children is that you only donate 31 percent of your money to the people of Uganda. What’s your response to that?
JENKINS: One flaw of the internet is how quickly it can disseminate misinformation. The actual number is 37 percent. Thirty-seven percent of our budget goes directly to central African-related programs, about 20 percent goes to salaries and overhead, and the remaining 43 percent goes to our awareness programs. Those include things like flying Ugandans to America to go on cross-country awareness tours we pay for. And our staff in America has to go to Uganda, too. We got criticized for spending $1 million on travel expenses, but getting 130 people around the country and around the world is expensive. But aside from that, the truth about Invisible Children is that we are not an aid organization, and we don’t intend to be. I think people think we’re over there delivering shoes or food. But we are an advocacy and awareness organization.
There’s a rabid hunger to criticize the spending of charities because of abuse in the past. But all of our finances are public record. You can go online and see how much we make. I pay $300 a month in rent and don’t even own a bed. I sleep on the floor. We’re in this because we love it, because this is the job of our dreams.
GOOD: What do you do with the funds sent to central Africa?
JENKINS: With that money, we’re focusing on revitalizing the region so they don’t have a reason to hate the government and start future conflicts once Kony is gone. Of the 37 percent of funds that go to central Africa, I’d say about 30 percent goes toward energizing Uganda. We have 12 partner schools we rebuilt from the ground up; we have 1,000 kids whose secondary school we pay for; we have several hundred kids in college and mentors for all of them; we have a program called Mend in which we teach former sex slaves to be seamstresses. There’s also our Village Savings and Loan Association, through which we teach villagers how to become their own bank, because there’s not a lot of trust for banks there. On top of that, we have literacy programs. Sure, we’re after Kony, but we’re also doing a lot of other things to help create sustainable peace. And if our website ever stops crashing, you can read about all of this there.
GOOD: Invisible Children supports the Ugandan army, the UPDF, in their pursuit of Kony. But it’s been shown that the UPDF has committed its own atrocities in the past, including rapes. Why are you supporting them?
JENKINS: That’s a great question. Yes, it’s true that the Ugandan military has committed crimes in the past. We do not deny those crimes. But in terms of the pursuit of the LRA in the last six years, they’ve made a marked change and are attempting to be spotless.
We were involved in five years of peace talks with Kony. We want peace. But the truth is that Kony abused the peace process, used it to regain strength, and then went to wreak havoc. At that point, if someone’s busting into your house with a gun and robbing you, you can only talk for so long before you start using force. Force is an absolute last resort, and our campaign is trying to get him to surrender. We don’t want a bloodbath. A peaceful end to this is the dream.
GOOD: Assuming it does come down to conflict, why continue supporting the Ugandan army since most reports say Kony has fled Uganda?
JENKINS: Great question. That’s because the UPDF is the only force able to go after Kony. Congo is a failed state, Central African Republic has no military, South Sudan just became a country and has no military. There’s nobody else there to stop him. The only people there are U.N. peacekeepers, and they have a "do no harm" policy, meaning they can take no offensive action. The only thing they can do is protect their own base. The UPDF is all that’s there. And they have received permission from regional governments to operate in their nations to attack the LRA.
GOOD: A lot of people are wondering what you expect this video to accomplish. What’s the best endgame as far as Invisible Children is concerned?
JENKINS: Our hope is we see an effective end to the LRA. Ideally, beyond all things, we’d like to see Kony’s arrest or his surrender—and not just his arrest; we also want the other leadership of the LRA. But understanding that he is a madman, we understand that it could end violently. Luckily, the United States is involved, and they’re using a great team to try and mitigate violence as much as possible. If Kony is arrested, we’d like to see Kony tried at the Hague, and then it sets a precedent. It tells future warlords that if you want to commit genocide, if you want to commit war crimes, you cannot get away with it anymore.
GOOD: What are your thoughts on people who say this video is an addition to the "white savior" canon?
JENKINS: To be completely candid, I think that’s the most absurd and offensive accusation. The whole point of the movie is that we are all humans. If this were white people suffering these crimes, we would be there, too. It has nothing to do with race and it has nothing to do with neo-colonialism. This has to do with us having the resources to help fight for people who don’t have resources. Also, look at the staff page on our website to see how many Africans work with us. It’s not as if we’re all white guys from San Diego.
GOOD: What do you want to tell the film's critics directly?
JENKINS: Our films are made for high school children. We make films that speak the language of kids. We say, "You may live thousands of miles away from these problems in Uganda, but those kids are just like you, and you can do something to help them by getting your government and your self involved." Our films weren’t made to be scrutinized by the Guardian. They were made to get young people involved in some of the world’s worst crimes. We can’t solve every crime, and we don’t intend to. But we can help fight the worst crimes.
I understand the criticism, because I think a healthy dose of skepticism is important when investing time and money into something. But I’d invite anyone to come to our offices and talk to us. I think when people dismiss us as having "white savior complex," they’re missing the main point: We’re just trying to do a little part to help change the world.
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