Film, Awareness, and Tangible Change

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By: Virginia McNallyfilm

How do we accurately tell the story of the challenges facing the developing world? How do we go beyond raising awareness to actually making a difference? As Lauren Anderson suggested in her discussion of the Kony 2012 phenomenon, the digital age has created a new set of opportunities and challenges for organizations that seek to raise awareness and support. Organizations can take advantage of the digital age where information spreads like wildfire. They can also fall into the trap of spreading content that is simply most likely to be reposted or shared instead of content that is accurate and depicts the true nature of challenges facing the developing world.

How do we overcome the shortcomings of these organizations and learn from mistakes in past efforts to end conflicts and foster development? A case study of the 2004 film “Born Into Brothels” reveals the power in being honest about not only the challenges facing the developing world, but also the challenges facing those who work to change the status quo for those living in extreme poverty.

“Born into Brothels” depicts the gritty reality of Zana Briski and her mission to improve the prospects of a group of children living in an Indian red light district. As a photographer, Zana spends her time, money, and efforts teaching photography while trying to get the children into boarding schools so they can escape the toxic brothel environment. After Zana succeeds in securing spots for the children, most are not allowed to attend the school or are removed shortly after being admitted. It was disheartening to see that after all the efforts of not only the photographer but also individuals from the Associated Free Press, many of the children returned to the brothel with no hope of getting back out.

While Zana was unsuccessful in getting all the children out of the brothel and keeping them in school, the film was successful in accurately depicting the struggles and challenges Zana faced while trying to make an impact in the lives of a small group of children. The film not only raises awareness about the extreme poverty and other issues facing the children of the red light district, but it also raises awareness about the struggle to make a difference. In a world where there are many organizations all working to improve living conditions, provide education, and end major conflicts, transparency is key.

Specifically, transparency about the nature of the challenges is crucial to pursuing the right course of action. In the film, Zana has the opportunity to teach the children what she knows, but she realizes that this will not be enough to make a difference in their lives. She rightly takes the next step to give her students access to education, which is a sustainable response to the situation.

However, education alone is still not enough. Because families were separated, children found it difficult to stay in school or parents found that it was too difficult to be separated from their children. In addition to needing a child for financial purposes, many parents or caretakers do not want to lose their child and become entirely separated from them. Sending a child to boarding school evokes a deep sense of loss and loneliness. Especially in third world where loss of loved ones is fairly common and infant mortality is high, it is difficult to choose to send a child away. Many parents or caretakers may have a sense of hope vested in a child, and when the child leaves they will have difficulty believing that the child is better off separated from the family.

While Zana struggled to make a difference for each student in her class, she needed support from families. Perhaps this support would have been more available had the families also been in a position to be elevated as a result of her efforts. A key take-away from this film is that development must be supported from many angles. Entire families need to be lifted up together, not just children. However, it is difficult for one organization to tackle all of these issues. A combination of microfinance or social entrepreneurship, education initiatives, and state supported policy change can work to lift entire families out of poverty instead of just children.

Just because most of the children in “Born into Brothels” did not stay in school does not mean that the movie was a failure or that Zana’s efforts were largely in vain. In fact, organizations should be quick to tell their stories of failure alongside their stories of success. This creates an open environment where people can exchange ideas and work in tandem to be more effective. When an organization reveals a weakness or difficulty in solving a problem, another organization can step in and offer advice or action. A culture of transparency will be more effective and efficient. NGOs and non-profits cannot afford to waste time or money by making the same mistakes already made by others. Instead, communicating in a transparent environment will yield the most successful outcomes for the poor, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised.

This communication should extend to awareness campaigns so that the general public is truly aware about the reality of challenges in the developing world. When organizations present solutions that are over-simplified or unlikely to be effective, they are misinforming those who want to be part of making a difference. They are also setting up unrealistic expectations, only setting up millions of supporters for disappointment when goals are not met and problems are not solved. Disappointment leads to less support of and trust in NGOs and non-profits, and without crucial support, no real difference can be made. Transparency and bearing failure along with success will lead to a more effective and efficient community of leaders and supporters who want to make a tangible difference in the developing world. This will mean sharing content that does more than appeal to emotions, but it is better to reach less people with the truth than more people with an oversimplified solution.

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