I want to preface my comments by saying that I support the work of Doctors without Borders, and they were the first organization I donated to after the earthquake in Haiti. With that said, I was struck by the above poster I received in my email. It advertises a documentary about their work that will screen worldwide (click her for locations and more information). At first I thought it was just cheeky sales pitch for donations, framing the work of the organization within the narrative structure of an action film. The image reminded me a little of the Constant Gardener, in which Africa becomes the backdrop for purification of the white man’s soul (as is the case of the Western genre of film).
Now, I haven’t seen Living in Emergency, nor do I intend to demean the humanitarian work of Doctor’s Without Borders, but it’s also interesting to explore this kind of image politics played out by NGOs. This was tackled in Enjoy Poverty by Renzo Martens, a video that explores the commodification of poverty. He contrasts the amount of money paid to professional non-African photographers for documenting violence and suffering versus village photographers who document weddings and family events. He trains the local photographers to sell their images to press, but as you would expect, they are locked out of the market. There is one telling scene in which he brings the photographers to a Doctors Without Borders compound and informs the physicians that they want to photograph starving children so they can makes some money in the international media market. The doctors are outraged, but fail to see that when the press are invited for photo ops, this is what happens. The distinction between news and PR is contested through this intervention.
The Doctors Without Borders movie poster adds an additional dimension, which is the evolution of “pop politics.” In Italy this phenomena is more pronounced, though certainly not absent in other technological democracies. The central idea is that the line between politics and entertainment is erased so that the public sphere is transferred entirely to the realm of television. For example, Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi becomes the host of the political variety show that mirrors television, and visa-versa. His ministers become show girls (literally several are former models and entertainers), and the two systems intertwine. Like the US, news programs become infotainment. Meanwhile, I have also recently seen car ads that are made to look like movie trailers. With the proliferation of reality TV shows and the tabloidization of the democratic sphere, the aesthetics of participation are blurred so that for anything to penetrate the general consciousness it is necessary to imitate a more familiar form of communication, such as TV. Even the Left plays this game. A leading critic is a comedian whose platform is monologs (likewise in the US Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert play the role of court jester), and a former leftist parliamentarian is on the gamedoc equivalent of Survivor.
This is where the Living in Emergence poster comes in. I can’t help but feel that it draws too strongly on pop politics by invoking the thrills and exoticism that you’d find in an action movie. The determined gaze of the (white) hero dominates the vulnerable and quasi-silhouetted figures of “dark” Africa. There’a a trend in film to depict the southern Other through an amber haze, using lens filters to position these places as if they exist in perpetual setting sunlight– in other words, as transition zones between the light of everyday life and the dark night of the soul (see Traffic, in particular). In Western discourse, usually Europe or the US serves as the stable (green) homeworld, whereas these distant colonial lands become the sites of psychological tests where the hero must find himself.
The flipside is Doctors Without Borders is trying to reach out to new audiences that are unfamiliar with difficult work of NGOs. By putting their work within the context of a familiar narrative structure it may be possible to attract younger people into a world they otherwise would dismiss as irrelevant or unexciting. Such is the state of mediated politics.