citybeat (2006-17)

To Tell a Story....

How California activism and international politics came to Knoxville

Two Festivals and a Parade

Knoxville pushes an April Saturday for all it’s worth

Wednesday, April 19

To Tell a Story....

In 2003, three filmmakers from Southern California went in search of a story. And they found it in Northern Uganda, where a slow—but nevertheless savage—civil war has been a part of life for the past 18 years. “Even when we got back we didn’t know that we had a story,” says Bobby Bailey, one of the filmmakers. “We knew we had a couple of great shots.”

But the film has managed to do something unexpected; it’s been able to mobilize a younger generation of activists, kids who previously had no interest in politics or social justice, kids who typically don’t care about the world outside of Knoxville.

“I feel it’s important to make this topic an area to focus on for our campus and wider community, because I went there, and I saw with my own eyes. And I was shocked by what I saw,” says Rosalind Hackett, UT professor of religious studies and anthropology. “I learned what a dirty war is. I learned that more people die from the consequences of this conflict than from the conflict itself.”

In Northern Uganda, more than 90 percent of the population is displaced, living in squalid conditions inside refugee camps, where disease, suicide and murder have become commonplace, if not expected daily occurrences. “They live in a state of fear,” Hackett continues. “It was such an eye-opener for me.... I was moved by how people were surviving in such conditions.”

The fear Hackett refers to is what keeps Ugandans in refugee camps, and causes thousands of children to make a nightly exodus in search of safe shelters. There are real bogeymen roaming the countryside in Northern Uganda. They may not come every night, but when they do come, the aftermath is brutal, almost inhuman in its ferocity.

As the war drags on year after year—as Kony falls deeper into dementia, believing himself to be a kind of spiritual medium—the rebels’ guerrilla tactics have grown more and more sadistic, as refugee camps are burned to the ground and children are abducted and turned into sex slaves or brainwashed as new recruits for the LRA.

Invisible Children , the title of the documentary, refers to these kids who have become forgotten casualties.

It may be weeks or even months between raids, but the possibility is always there, just beneath a frail and all-too-temporary peaceful veneer. “It’s not as high-profile as, say, loss of life on a huge scale in Rwanda, or even Darfur at times,” Hackett says. “It’s also a non-strategic location in that this is not a part of the world which has oil, or other strategic interests for world powers.”

Some of the earlier media coverage, Hackett explains, treated the Uganda situation as an out-of-the-way ethnic conflict that only concerns the darkest parts of Africa. “Of course it can look that way,” Hackett says, “because there’s somebody who’s an Acholi [Kony] killing his own people. If you look at the evolution of some of the language used to describe this war, they’re [the LRA] depicted as just a bunch of thugs and bandits, and they should just stew in their own juice.”

But the conflict no longer goes unnoticed by the international community. On Oct. 6, 2005, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for 5 top-tier members of the LRA, including Joseph Kony, almost two decades after the fighting began.

And back in 2004, the U.S. Senate passed the Northern Uganda Crisis Response Act (S.2264), signed by Tennessee’s own Lamar Alexander. The act is comprised of several talking points, which sound good on paper:

Support a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Northern Uganda

Work with the Ugandan government and international community to provide aid and development assistance

Ensure that provisions are being made to guarantee the protection of internally displaced civilians

Then, in 2005, Congress proposed further legislation with the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act (S.1462/HR.3127), which addressed both the crises in Sudan and Northern Uganda. Interestingly, Sen. Alexander’s name has yet to be added to that proposal. (The senator’s offices did not respond to an interview request.)

Nevertheless, as the story gains more exposure on an international level, people are finally appearing to tell this story.

“These kids, who are they to people who haven’t ever been there? But they mean so much to me,” says Bailey. “I’m willing to die for them, and that gives me such great purpose in life, you know, fighting for the impoverished, the unfortunate, the desperate, dirty and dying of the world, which I would’ve never guessed myself to do.”

Many Knoxvillians have had a similar experience. Diana Warner Bundy, proprietor of the Diana Warner Studios, became a supporter of Invisible Children after a visit to Africa. Upon returning, she restructured her company’s mission statement and designed a line of bracelets with Uganda in mind, donating the proceeds to relief efforts.

This past weekend, Bundy helped stage a benefit in the Old City, with musicians Nathan Angelo, Andy Davis and Dave Barnes among others, raising close to $8,000 for the Invisible Children fund, with over 1,000 attending the concert.

Mona Sheth, a political science major and UT Honors Council’s events director, organized a formal party/fundraiser with Amnesty International and the African Student Association on April 7, raising more than $1,000 to help establish a local chapter of Uganda-CAN (Conflict Action Network).

“What makes me optimistic,” Sheth says, “is that almost every single person who sees [ Invisible Children ] asks me directly what they can do to help.... Even though this is a nightmarish scenario, there’s passion.”

The film has captivated the MTV II generation, the media-saturated generation of music videos and extreme sports. “We agree with Bono,” Bailey says. “Why shouldn’t the poor get an entertaining and flashy presentation? Why does it have to be so heavy laden? We’ve tried to find the balance.”

The filmmakers hope to change the way certain stories are told. Their film, unlike one as austere as Hotel Rwanda , allows viewers to become active participants in an ongoing struggle.

On April 29, a nationwide Night Commute is scheduled. The Knoxville commute will make its way to World’s Fair Park, where the participants will craft letters to both Sen. Bill Frist and Sen. Lamar Alexander.

And, further down the line, another benefit concert is being scheduled for the end of August, with Hector Qirko, Mark Boling and international jazz saxophonist Hgqawana tentatively on the lineup.

“I said, ‘How can I help?’” Hackett says. “They said, ‘Please just go back and tell people how we’re suffering.’”

“My life has changed for the better,” Bailey says, echoing Hackett’s sentiments. “I wake up excited to tell these stories, to get these stories out there.”

To learn more about N. Uganda, visit invisiblechildren.com or ugandacan.org .

Two Festivals and a Parade

EarthFest, planned for Earth Day at World’s Fair Park, had some issues. The morning’s heavy rain delayed its opening by two hours. By noon the sun was way out, but what looked like neatly mown grass on the South Lawn turned out to be, when stepped upon, a marshland more suitable for endangered waterfowl than for earthbound humans. An emergency distribution of straw partly mitigated the mess.

EarthFest was especially earnest and didactic as festivals go; food and drink were limited to begin with, as if to remind us that our consumption is one of the earth’s many problems. It got scarcer as the day went on. Beer wasn’t available until the evening hours.

The live music, which included Dishwater Blonde, Moonshine Still, and Bonnie Prince John Davis, the now-devout ex-leader of local supergroup Superdrag, was excellent, by all accounts. But by the time the headliners started, some who’d come intending to spend the day had left hungry, muddy, and sober.

In a Bizarro World switch, though, the usually festivity-challenged Dogwood Arts Festival which has seemed the poor relation during some competing-festival Saturdays in the recent past, was livelier than many expected. Once a prude among Knoxville festivals, DAF was, for the first time ever, serving beer by the pint, right out in the open, as well as wine.

It’s hard to overestimate the significance of the development; a decade or so ago, Dogwood festival attendees unacquainted with downtown were known to complain about the fact that patrons of the square’s regular restaurants were drinking beer at outdoor tables.

Some festivalgoers seemed taken aback by the option, and it looked as if the beer wasn’t selling quite like it was at Rossini a couple of weeks before, but the festival reportedly made money on the concession. Festival co-chair Eddie Manis says it caused no problems, and they’ll probably do it next year.

The DAF’s crafts booths seemed livelier and less predictable than in many years past, and the spontaneous atmosphere even bred conga-playing rappers on Union. The Sonic Forest at Krutch Park, a collection of metal robot-trees that made harmonic sounds when approached by children—and suddenly childlike adults—was inspired. Several of the square’s existing shops reported brisk business.

Meanwhile, on Gay Street at the same time all that was going on was what was purported to be the biggest military parade there since 1919, 2,500 marching soldiers of the 278th Regimental Combat Team, attended by some 20,000 cheering civilians. We’re pretty sure it was also the slowest. It started at 2, and was still not completely done after 4, when much of the crowd had drifted away. Market Square vendors were busy before, during, and after the parade.

After an evening performance by Con Hunley, Dogwood continued on Sunday, sans beer, an apparent success despite the mulishness of its namesakes; it has been by some accounts the least-colorful spring in decades.

By Monday, all that was left of both festivals were brown spots in the grass of Krutch Park and the South Lawn, as downtown—the Old City, this time—readies for still another Saturday festival, this one devoted to the Anglo-Caribbean music known as ska. We’ll put out a garden one of these days.

 

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, April 19

Thursday, April 20

Friday, April 21

Saturday, April 22

Sunday, April 23

Monday, April 24

Tuesday, April 25