By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The director of a video sensation that calls for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of a Ugandan militia group, agreed on Friday with skeptics who have called the film oversimplified, saying it was deliberately made that way.
The 30-minute YouTube film called “Kony 2012,” which by Friday had been viewed on YouTube more than 58 million times, aims to wake up the world to atrocities committed by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, including kidnapping children and forcing them to fight.
Filmmaker Jason Russell’s nonprofit group, Invisible Children, tapped 12 influential policy makers and 20 celebrities with popular Twitter accounts, including Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie, to spread the video. Since then, the company owned by powerful producer Harvey Weinstein has contacted Russell to buy the film.
The phenomenal success of the video, including the savvy media campaign with tweets about Kony, has been hailed for inspiring young people to activism, but has suffered some criticism including that it oversimplified a long-standing human rights crisis.
Russell, who narrates the video with a personal story that juxtaposes shots of his young son in San Diego, California with the hopelessness of Ugandan children, told Reuters on Friday the video was only meant as a kick-starter to a complicated issue.
“It definitely oversimplifies the issue. This video is not the answer, it’s just the gateway into the conversation. And we made it quick and oversimplified on purpose,” he said. “We are proud that it is simple. We like that. And we want you to keep investigating, we want you to read the history.”
Mixed reactions in Uganda include criticism that the attention has come too late, that much of the armed conflict in the area has subsided and the film leaves out that the Ugandan military is often accused of committing the same atrocities as Kony’s fighters. In addition, Kony is believed to have long since fled Uganda and now only commands a few hundred followers.
“Kony has been indicted, that’s what we are saying. It doesn’t matter if he has three fighters, 300 or 3,000. That’s not the issue,” Russell said. The group’s aim is to get Kony to surrender and be brought to the International Criminal Court in The Hague where Kony is under indictment.
“He needs to face justice and we want to give him the choice to surrender,” Russell said.
Invisible Children also has faced questions about its governance in light of financial statements showing a large proportion of funds were used for travel and film production rather than charity work. The non-profit group published its financial statements this week amid rising scrutiny.
“They hear the word charity and they don’t understand why all of our money isn’t going to Central Africa,” Russell said. “We have found that putting money towards our media and our movie, changes lives. And in that life change, it has tangible results into a movement … that movement does galvanize the mission.”
Others have said the problem needed to be solved within Uganda rather than a viral campaign watched by viewers who may not understand the situation on the ground.
To that criticism, Russell said: “We don’t think Americans should be the world police, that is not what we are advocating. We want to continue to put pressure on the policy makers, on the (U.S.) President to keep really hyper-focused on this issue.”
The video begins with the slogan, “Nothing Is More Powerful Than An Idea” and references the strength of social media sites like Facebook that can help spur immediate action. The campaign has urged supporters of the movement to “blanket every street, every city” on April 20.
The success of the video has shocked the non-profit group even though they prepared for its launch on Tuesday with a five-day lead in campaign beforehand, said Russell.
Initially, he aimed for 500,000 YouTube viewers. Now, plans include a global dance party and other fundraising events.
“We were not prepared for this type of response because it has been a whirlwind,” he said. “To us, it is the world waking up … it is a global revolution.”