J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Online: I Am Because We Are

A recent documentary gives audiences a new appreciation for Sally Struthers, for persisting in her African relief PSAs despite the regular mocking she endured. Unfortunately, she is not in it, but Madonna certainly is. Make no mistake, as producer, narrator, and “star,” it is indeed her film (director Nathan Rissman is often described in press accounts as her former gardener). In a true happenstance of providence, I Am Because We Are, an ego-trip travelogue of her visits to the country, was uploaded to youtube and hulu to be screened for free right as she returned for the court hearing on her controversial second adoption case. Of course, just because it is free, does not mean you have to watch it.

Within the opening seconds, the formerly influential pop-star puts the audience on high cliché alert, telling us: “People always ask me why I chose Malawi and I tell them, ‘I didn’t, it chose me.’” She then explains a Malawian-born activist called her out of the blue asking for help. She caps her prologue with the groaner: “I ended up finding out much more than I bargained for about Malawi, about myself, about humanity.”

By this point, most reasonable people will have disabled their internet connection. However, if you stay with IABWA, you will hear Bill Clinton join the spectacle of self-serving condescension, claiming: “people ask me ‘why do you love it so much there [in Africa]’ and I always say it’s because they have the highest percentage of people, I believe, anywhere on Earth, who wake up every day with a song in their heart. They sing through their pain and their need.” So do not feel bad about the Rwandan genocide that happened under Clinton’s watch, because they still have their music. Disgusting.

Many of the profiles of children in dire circumstances which follow are honestly moving on a basic human level. These are good kids, forced to grow up too quickly, and too often die at far too young an age. If the film simply told their stories, it would be a perfectly respectable exercise in documentary filmmaking. However, the film constantly shows us Madonna’s Lady Bountiful act, which is always accompanied by her nauseating false modesty, breathlessly telling us: “I know I haven’t solved all his problems . . . but, at least it’s a start.”

Then suddenly, things get weird, as Madonna’s Kabbalah colleagues swoop in to teach the Malawians their Spirituality for Kids (SFK) curriculum, not that its Kabbalah origins are identified in the film. It is this deceptive nature of IABWA that is most troubling. When speaking of young David Banda, whom she would eventually adopt, Madonna claims: “no one knew where his father was.” Unfortunately, this does not appear to be wholly accurate. Evidently, Yohane Banda did indeed visit his son at the orphanage, having committed him to their care in hopes they could save David’s fragile life, with the intention of eventually reclaiming him. It seems that won’t be happening anytime soon.

This is a deeply problematic film—a cynical act of self-aggrandizement that actually exploits those it purports to help. Wisely, IABWA was not picked up by an American distributor after its festival run, but it can currently be viewed for free online. For a truly inspiring documentary about the plight of African AIDS orphans, I recommend catching up with Louise Hogarts’s Angels in the Dust, a profile of Marion and Con Cloete, who run an orphanage in South African out of laudably compassionate motives and are infinitely more interesting than Madonna.

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