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Children on the Front Lines

(Left to Right) James Orbinski, Romeo Dallaire and Studio 180 Artistic Director Joel Greenberg

(Left to Right) James Orbinski, Romeo Dallaire and Studio 180 Artistic Director Joel Greenberg

In February 2010, a few weeks before the opening of our production of The Overwhelming, members of the Studio 180 team, along with a large group of our supporters, were treated to an unforgettable evening featuring two remarkable men at the podium. Both Dr. James Orbinski and Lieutenant-General Roméo A. Dallaire spoke movingly of the atrocities they had witnessed in Africa and of the capacity for Art to illuminate this suffering. Such illumination, they hoped, would lead to a deeper understanding of the conflicts they had encountered and possibly give rise to they type of humanitarian support they are both still so dedicated to providing. At the end of the evening, as we were bidding farewell to Mr. Dallaire, he paused for a moment and then offered a simple thought. “You know what you should do? You should do a play about Child Soldiers. This is a very important issue.”

The issue of Child Soldiers has been on everyone’s radar of late in light of the controversy surrounding the KONY 2012 video that became an overnight viral sensation. Upon its debut, the short film inspired a wave of overwhelming support, emphatic sharing and (as only social media can do) led to the coronation of the issue of Child Soldiers as the most important thing in the world at that moment. Then came the backlash, with accusations of corruption, manipulation and general vilification of the filmmaker. Social media had declared a new most important issue in the world, the perils of online activism and the corruption of Jason Russell.

With rehearsals under way for Clybourne Park we felt we had little time to fully absorb, consider or respond to the online sensation that KONY 2012 had become so we decided to put some questions to someone we knew had a vested interest in the subject matter at hand. We sent our queries to actor, writer and producer Jenn Buffett, who had been a recipient of an Ontario Arts Council’s Theatre Creators’ Reserve grant in 2011 for Small Soldiers, a play about the issue of Child Soldiers in Africa.

A lot has happened between the time Jenn received our questions and our getting this online, including filmmaker Jason Russell’s public meltdown and subsequent diagnosis of “brief reactive psychosis”, but we’re happy to share Jenn’s thoughtful responses to our questions and, most importantly, her suggestions for further research to heighten one’s understanding of the complex issue at hand.

Studio 180: Tell us a little bit about how you come to this subject matter and what compels you to speak out on the issue of Child Soldiers.

Jenn Buffett in Naivasha, Kenya

Jenn Buffett: I want to preface all of this by saying that I am a 29 year old white girl from Quispamsis, New Brunswick. Although never well off, I have never wanted for anything. I have spent time in Africa (I recently marked the second anniversary of my landing in Kenya) but do not profess to know everything there is to know. I just have an inexplicable connection and love for people I have met and those I have helped in my own way. Especially the children. They are the very definition of resiliency. I like to preface my opinions with this statement to illustrate that I am aware of my own situation. I don’t profess to be better than anyone else. My opinions are based on having read and watched as much as I could possibly get my hands on about child soldiers.

Studio 180 was kind enough to offer me a Theatre Creators’ Reserve grant for the play I am writing titled Small Soldiers and I was more than happy to try and provide honest answers to their tough questions about the KONY 2012 campaign.

Studio 180: The release of this video has precipitated extreme reactions on both ends of the spectrum – first in the rush to share and support the cause, and then, in a whiplash inducing backlash, we saw a shower of accusations questioning the filmmakers’ motives, tactics and the likelihood of monetary support doing genuine good. Do you think either of these extremes are justified?

Jenn Buffett: I feel compelled to bring up the topic of the “armchair activist” as a preface to my opinion. I strongly believe in education vs. awareness. It is not the same thing to sit at your computer and read some post on Facebook and click “share” or “like” and then leave your house and buy a $5 frappuccino. You haven’t registered what it all means. It hasn’t affected the way you live. I find people who read the post on Facebook and then want to read a book about the topic or want to do more research online are those who have let the information affect them. Because we are inundated with this petition and that petition, I don’t believe it is enough to click “share” and go about your day anymore.

(Studio 180 shared similar thoughts regarding online activism in an earlier blog post)

So, although I think both extremes are justified, I do believe that one is more educated than the other. In my opinion, those who are for the campaign have simply watched the video and fallen for Jason Russell’s charm and the tragedy that Uganda and its children are facing. Conversely, I feel that those who are on the other side of the cause have done their research. They have researched the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and Joseph Kony and see the discrepancies and misinformation, they’ve researched Invisible Children and their allocation of funds, they have spoken up against the simplification of a very complicated topic. So based on my personal bias of education vs. awareness, I’m sure you can guess which side I land on.

Dialogue is happening. The only problem being is that the dialogue is about Invisible Children and not about Child Soldiers, Joseph Kony or the LRA.

Studio 180: Can a polarizing project like this be misguided or naive but still noble in intent?

Jenn Buffett: Absolutely it can. For those who don’t know, Jason Russell is an evangelical Christian. I don’t hold this against him. I actually applaud him for not bringing his religion into the picture (though I will bring up the attendant religious hypocrisy later on). Because he has this background, I do believe his intent is noble. I do believe he wants to change the world and arrest Kony and save the children of Uganda. Quite the undertaking though, isn’t it?

Studio 180: Is the awareness of the issue engendered by the video innately valuable despite the complexities or is there a danger in allowing one man (Joseph Kony) to exemplify something that is far deeper seated?

Jenn Buffett: I think there is a lot of danger in over simplifying something that is innately complex. It’s a fine balance. You have to tread the line between educating people on the real issues at hand vs. boring your audience.

I feel that some of his statements and views on the subject expressed in KONY 2012 are dangerously simple. For example, his fervent statement to Jacob (a Ugandan child featured prominently in the film) saying, “We are going to stop them. Do you hear me? We are going to stop them.” is incredibly misguided. It was a promise he couldn’t keep and one based on an emotional response. It makes it almost insultingly simple. Many nations (and many Ugandans for that matter) have been trying to “stop them” for years despite the filmmaker’s continuous statements that nobody cares. I get frustrated that policies and procedures consistently stand in the way of action, but the fact that Jason Russell is now involved in no way means that it is all about to come to an end. I also think his very black and white view on the issue is incredibly misguided and naïve. He supports the Ugandan Army and SPLA but condemns the LRA. With a bit more research he would realize that all three armies are accused of atrocities and of using child soldiers to further their own political and religious agendas. There is a lot of grey area in Africa.

There is also a lot of grey area in the United States’ involvement in the conflicts in Africa. Perhaps instead of asking their Senators and their Presidet to bring “American advisors” (what does that even mean?) to Uganda, people should be campaigning to get the United States to stop supplying weapons to rebel forces? Perhaps.

Studio 180: Is the film a work of Art? Politics? Manipulation? Activism?

Jenn Buffett: I think it’s all of the above. 

Is it art? Absolutely. He has clearly structured images, fed people lines to say, and narrates the movie himself. The question is, is it good art? I personally feel it is more of a commercial for him and his company rather than a documentary film on Joseph Kony . . . but all art is subjective.

Is it politics? They are definitely selling it that way. The whole agenda is to create awareness, which for them means getting people to engage in politics by calling and writing senators.

Manipulation? Absolutely. He is playing on our emotions. He shows us his beautiful child trying to tug on our heart strings, reminding us that it could be any of our children. He shows us Jacob’s breakdown and how happy he is now that Jason Russell is in his life. He tells us we don’t have time, we are running out of time, we only have so much time.

Activism? I have a very different opinion of what the definition of activism is vs. Wikipedia’s definition (yes I looked it up!). According to Wikipedia “Activism consists of intentional efforts to promote, impede or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change. Activism can take a wide range of forms from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, political campaigning, economic activism such as boycotts or preferentially patronizing businesses, rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins, and hunger strikes.”

I always envisioned activism as getting your hands dirtier than all that.

Studio 180: What are the things people should be made aware of?

Jenn Buffett: One of the most succinct arguments I have read yet is, “Child soldiers didn’t start with Kony and they won’t end with Kony.”

My very specific problems with the video are as follows:

  1. The video begins with Jason Russell’s own child fake “bombing” things. I don’t know if I’m missing some hidden meaning in this but for someone to use their child as a tool for us to connect to his story, showing the child being “violent” doesn’t really help the argument that children should be protected from violence.
  2. The statement made that Joseph Kony is only fighting to hold onto his power is a very convenient simplification. Kony (and many others) believe that he is a medium through which Jesus speaks. He is a very religious man. This is why I find it very convenient that an evangelical Christian keeps religion out of the picture when the very man he is fighting believes in the same religion he does and uses it to justify his actions.
  3. The packages themselves. I am concerned that buying a package will be cool but students won’t actually be educated on what it all means. It will be the new hip thing to own a KONY 2012 bracelet. It will end up at the bottom of a drawer once the newest cool accessory comes along.
  4. The ever present argument of the “white man as saviour.” North America needs to stop treating Africa as a place that only we can fix. There are tons and tons of self-run, homegrown organizations that put their heart and souls into creating a better government and life for themselves. We may have the means to help but we don’t always have the correct answers on how to help.

I just hope that the conversation can be turned around so that people stop talking about the video and Invisible Children itself and start talking about the issue at hand. There are hundreds of thousands of children who are being used as soldiers every day. This really is an atrocity. I don’t have a solution to the problem. Sorry. I do believe that writing letters and making phone calls to political figures can keep the powers that be aware that this is important to us. We can request that the international criminal court be more effective in arresting war criminals (since their inception they have only arrested one war criminal – a Congolese leader who used child soldiers in his war), we can demand that our countries have a heightened awareness of where our arms go and demand that troops that are on the ground prioritize finding weapons and drug caches, we can demand that our political priorities not solely be in countries that supply us with resources but with countries who are in great need of a physical presence. Rwanda didn’t receive help because there are no oil reserves, diamonds or gold. Only people.

Studio 180: Where do you think people can go to start to educate themselves? 

Jenn Buffett:

Thanks Jenn, for taking so much time to share your opinions and insight with us and for providing so many avenues for further learning. We look forward to hearing more about Small Soldiers as it continues to evolve and we look forward to any thoughts our audience might have about the complex issues discussed in this article.

  • A co-founder of Studio 180, Mark is a Toronto-based actor, writer and producer. As a member of our Core Artistic Team, Mark coordinates the company’s new play development initiatives and is one of our Studio 180 IN CLASS workshop leaders. More posts by Mark McGrinder

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