The choice to sport tuxedos and see-through haute-couture dresses for a screening about dying children in the second poorest country in the world (Malawi) may seem at odds with the title-message of Madonna's new production, the documentary I Am Because We Are directed by erstwhile gardener Nathan Rissman -- but this kind of contradiction is perhaps par for the course for Cannes. Madonna introduced the documentary in a splendid sparkling black v-necked dress with silver spangles, and then the still images of skeletal children with AIDS began. This photo montage, the stills flashing in black and white as if taken from behind the front line, was the powerful punch of the documentary. We also have sweet comments from little girls smiling and saying that, yes, they are HIV positive. Then comes a shot of an open wooden coffin bearing a child, his dead face painted white.
Alerting audiences to the painful problems of penury and disease in Malawi is an exceptionally good thing -- and it is also a good gesture, pace those skeptical of the 'drop-in-the-bucket' effort -- that Madonna saved a dying little boy and tried to adopt him. Throughout the film, one feels the sincerity of Madonna's desire to bring hope to a dying nation, where a million children are orphans, and one child after another smiles and says, "My mother is dead." Madonna intimately mentions that her own mother died when she was six, making it clear that she identifies with these children who have no one "to guide them."
Yet the film is weak and its weakness lies in Madonna's over-the-top urge to make this a film of hope. After shocking us with facts and images, Madonna (with director Rissman) overburdens the film with an insistence on positive thinking as the solution. These people could make the country work if only they adopted a forward-leaning attitude. "You can change your destiny," the voice-over goes, admonishing the people of Malawi to remember the mantra: "I am responsible for my actions." The film begins and ends with a Malawian saying twisted to hammer in the responsibility point: "No one can shave your head when you're not there."
This enthusiasm to rally support for positive thinking -- rooted in the tenets of the Kabbala, Madonna's adopted belief system -- is to the detriment of a more concrete look at the economic and cultural drivers causing the hardships in Malawi. The documentary begins with Madonna admitting she does not even know where to find Malawi on a map, and the film does nothing to rectify this problem. No information about Malawi's history or contemporary situation is given, unless one counts Bill Clinton's comment that "l0,000 years of culture are alive in today's Malawians." Instead we are left with the panacea package -- drilled in with over 30 minutes of repetitive statements -- that people must take charge of their own destiny and refuse to be victims, and that teachers who instill this positive message in children may do more for the country than better economic or medical policies. All we have to do is care: I Am Because We are. (Excuse my second repetition in this article; those of us who saw the film had to endure it a dozen times, with singing chanting faces piping in the jingle as if for a Coca Cola commercial.)
Madonna is well-intentioned in her urge to spread positive thinking -- and perhaps she is, in a naive way, even right. Having taught in developing countries, I have seen the powerful effects of encouraging students to assert themselves and seize their opportunities, and how quickly students take to this kind of enthusiasm. Still there is a context. The ten dollars necessary for each child to go to school must come from somewhere, besides a generous-hearted foreign donor or two. The perpetuation of AIDS-stricken infants can hardly stop with these very same babies "deciding their own destiny."
Indeed, it only took an afternoon of calling non-governmental agencies in Malawi for me to learn of more viable options: above all, eradicating poverty through agricultural measures, such as teaching crop diversification (maize was until recently the only staple, so when rain failed, people starved), distributing seeds and implementing water irrigation systems. As 90 percent of Malawi is rural, efforts made to improve crops would significantly affect the economy of the country.
As for AIDS, the main problem in Malawi, as in other African countries, is lack of sex education, stigma about the disease (so no one wants to test him or herself) and gender inequality (women bear the brunt of AIDS). A few years ago, NGOs banded together to create "HOPE Kits" -- packages of educational materials about AIDS -- and already these hope kits, delivered by local community workers, have had a major impact on lessening the disease. So has the fact that the government five years ago made anti-retroviral medicine more easily available.
The help that Madonna's film suggests -- caring in general, positive thinking and, as her own example shows, buying a house for a family -- could certainly make a difference but would not be as sustainable or wide-reaching as contributing to NGO efforts that are already in place (including those of the NGO she herself founded: "Raising Malawi"). A spectator watching Madonna's film, while moved to help, would not, based on the information the film itself provides, know what specific steps to take to "care."
There is also something glib about Madonna's side-theme in her film about how people in this poor country have more humanity and joy (a narration accompanied with shots of laughing children in pick-up trucks) than people on Park Avenue (we see a traffic jam). Her assertion that the Malawian culture is richer than ours strikes one as a bit disingenuous, coming after a good fifteen minutes of the documentary has just denounced Malawian popular belief in "witch doctors" (preferably termed "traditional healers") as a practice that leads to genital mutilation and perpetuates the cycle of despair.
"It seems like a program for children's TV," the Egyptian journalist slumbering next to me muttered during the last half hour of chanting "I Am Because We Are". He admitted that the first half of the documentary, however, had been effective, to the point where he had to put his hands over his eyes because the images were too painful. Too bad then that Madonna did not have an editor or consultant or trainer to help her make this necessary film more effective. While Madonna expertly knows how to affect an audience with body, song and gesture, she does not seem to know that film is not just a voice-over telling us positive things to a nice collage of pictures. The intent of the film backfires with the "Papa Does Preach" banality of the finish.
Below : websites of a few NGOs working effectively in Malawi.
And Madonna's own :