Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

“Tunahaki” (film festival winner) shows 200 ways good intentions lead to bad results.

POSTSCRIPT at the beginning. Please read Grace Mkombozi's comment below and my response. Grace shows us that we cannot know the truth--especially looking in from the outside. Even in documentaries what is documented can be very different than what we see on the screen. I have done enough community development work in the United States and abroad to know that there are as many politics and back stories in these situations as in any corporation. Reading Grace's comments I now realize that my outrage needs the leavening balance of someone closer to the situation. --Janet Riehl

Come on out to the Africa World Documentary Film Festival!

Do you live in St. Louis? Care about film? Want to know more about what remains "the Dark Continent" in American media? Involved in community and international development? Love children? Committed to peace?

If so, before I get all "het up" (as we say in the country), let me urge you to dash over to the Missouri History Museum to see the last three days of the 4th annual Africa World Documentary Film Festival . Niyi Coker, Jr., the E. Desmond Lee Professor at University of Missouri at St. Louis directs the festival with arms in Barbados and Cameroon.

"Helpers are con men, interfering."
--Fritz Perls,
founder of Gestalt Psychology

During the mid-1970s I lived and worked in Africa (Botswana and Ghana) for five years. I saw a lot, thought a lot, learned a lot about culture and development work. Through the lens of that on the ground education I viewed the film "Tunahaki".

"Tunahaki" is a case study in 200 things to do wrong in international development and cross-cultural understanding. Yet, it's billed as "The extraordinary story of nine gifted orphans and their journey from Africa to America."

There are three major things wrong with the world this picture shows us. 1) The film itself; 2) The conceptual framework (or lack); 3) What actually happens as a result of #2. There are maybe 5 things right.

So, what happens?
TUNAHAKI begins at an orphanage in Tanzania. We meet the children who are acrobats, a skill they learned from “Teacher-David”, a poor man who runs Tunahaki. Scott Fifer, an American, takes a volunteer vacation and ends up there. He makes a bold commitment: “I’m going to bring the kids to America, raise money and build them a permanent home.” The whirlwind tour raises hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"After I saw 'Hotel Rwanda' I felt ashamed to be human," Scott Fifer says as "Tunahaki" begins. From this promising beginning, Scott's good intentions quickly start a downward spiral. He doesn't know. But, within the first five minutes I knew, as many others in America must, that this formula was a no-brainer for tragic consequences. The audience in Barbados and Cameroon knew. To sit in the audience of "Tunahaki" made me feel, once again, ashamed to be an American. Ashamed to be white.

What's wrong with this picture?

For starters:

1) Mason Bendewald embarks on a documentary tracing the philanthropic journey of Scott Fifer in Tanzania. Although his director's statement is thoughtful and aware, the point of view of the film isn't clear until the the last five minutes.

2) The hero throughout most of the film is American Scott Fifer who becomes the sponsor of the project to bring these talented, well-behaved Tanzanian children for a week in southern California and Las Vegas.

The hero of this piece should be "Teacher-David", who founded the orphanage that becomes a home for homeless children. While his full name is mentioned in the film, I cannot find it in any of "Tunahaki's" on-line promotion.

What's wrong with the conceptual development model? Why is it the anti-model for sane and sustainable development?

1) Rescue Model. People in developing countries need to be rescued by people in developed countries. (Previously called "Third World," and "First World"). This is a model that has proved not to work for centuries. Didn't Scott Fifer get the memo?

The rescue here becomes quite literal as the children are "air-lifted" out of their village into the flashiest, most superficial parts of the United States.

2) Bigger is Better. Dramatic is Better.
3) Good intentions are enough.

What's wrong with what happens and how it happens?

1) The children's expectations are raised to impossible levels.
2) There's a huge disconnect between the world they come from and the world they go to.
3) There's an egregiously false and contorted picture of America in the places they are taken.
4) I'll get back to you later in the day...

Scott Fifer seems to have learned a lot, too. After his Tunahaki experiment went south, he set up Go Campaign, which, we hope, is doing the good it says it is.

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4 Responses »

  1. I agree, I saw the film yesterday. I though it started out great and was going to go somewhere special but as soon as he said, "I want to bring these kids to america" I cussed out loud, "Gd-it, another one of these f-ing movies!?" Just like Wasteland and Born into Brothels, these films all suffer from the same issues; The stories are feel good stories for "first worlder's". Rather than being about the people they really need to be about they attempt to use someone who the audience can relate to in an effort to help the wealthy funders relate to the subject matter. Then the funders can all sit around and pat each other on the back saying, "Look at the great things we did for these poor backwards people" without needing to gain any understanding of any reality other than their own.

  2. Eric,

    Yes. The Scott Fifer (and the film) is both over-ambitious and under-ambitious. With the amount of money spent on this wild adventure, several orphanages could have been completed and staffed.

    It's just not sane or sustainable. Niyi Coker said that when this film was screened in both Barbados and Cameroon, that the audience was so upset that they jeered. I would have thrown tomatoes if I'd had some.

    I'll be fleshing the post out later. This is just a draft. I wanted to get something up to link to the film festival.

    Janet Riehl

  3. More disheartening than this film is the fact that anyone who views it suddenly thinks they are an expert and can judge the people and the circumstances in the film. As viewers of documentaries, people are led to believe they are watching the truth, forgetting entirely that they are only viewing one very particular and microscopic portion of a greater story, and moreover they are viewing it through someone else's limited and foggy lens.

    I know all the parties depicted in the story and you should not believe what you see on the screen. If you are clever enough to see that the film itself has problems, it should make one think that perhaps you are not getting the whole story?

    Suffice to say, teacher David is no hero in real life, and while it is true that no one in Africa needs to be rescued by the white man, Scott Fifer has been a true friend and life-changing force on the children in the film, all of whom he continues to mentor. And while the trip depicted in the film (which was the idea of Teacher David in real life and which happened 5 years ago) was underwritten by a corporation, Scott has gone on to build schools, health clinics, social entrepreneurship programs, vocational training programs, all working with local grassroots in-country partners around the world - not looking down on them or forcing his ideas upon them, but by strengthening local heroes and their own ideas and community needs.

    I too wanted to throw tomatoes at this film, but not for the same reasons listed above, but rather because it misleads people, and in turn makes me want to throw tomatoes at blogs and people who post on blogs with authority on people and events they don't have authority to speak on. This film director has done a great disservice to all of us who wasted time on it. I can't believe it took him 5 years to put together this terrible film. This is not even worth blogging about or commenting on anymore...

  4. Grace,

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments and deeper insight into the actual facts of the film. It's so true, we cannot know the truth. Even in documentaries what is documented can be very different than what we see on the screen. I have done enough community development work in the United States and abroad to know that there are as many politics and back stories in these situations as in any corporation.

    I'm heartened that you took the time to write and sort out the characters and facts involved. Were you at the film festival? I wished before, but now wish even more that there could have been discussion about the film and perhaps some remarks to frame it.

    I am sharing our exchange with Niyi Coker, director of the film festival, and Emily Underwood who directs community programs for the Missouri History Museum.

    On another note--I am guessing by your email address that you make documentaries?

    Thanks once again for taking the time to write.


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