Friday, 11 November 2011

Staging Hope: Acts of Peace in Northern Uganda

I don't watch many documentaries; the ones I do tend to be about the lives of American presidents or the development of the English language. I am afraid of pain - my own, and other people's - and what I watch tends to reflect that.

I've known about Staging Hope for some time: it's a documentary made by Melissa Fitzgerald (aka Carol from the West Wing, for those who are wondering) about a drama project in Northern Uganda. I thought it was going to be full of the kind of thing that's hard to hear and even harder to watch, the kind of thing that makes me flick channels when it's on the news because it hurts to be confronted with just how evil people can be and with my own inertia in the face of that same evil.

And there was some of that, of course. That, after all, is the reason d'être of the Voices of Uganda project and of the film which sprang from it.

But Staging Hope is warm and funny, too. It's the story of an unlikely friendship between a group of Ugandan teenagers - who have known nothing except war and poverty and the kind of suffering we would happily plug our ears with cotton wool not to have to hear about - and a group of American actors whose lives, like all of ours, are incredibly privileged by any reasonable standard.

It's the story, too, of the power of drama to connect people, to instil confidence, to help people tell about the things that they need to tell and that others need to hear. And if you're sceptical - if that sounds like Hollywood mumbo jumbo to you - then I defy you to watch this film and not change your mind.

Staging Hope is also something else, something that touched me deeply as someone who hopes one day to be recognised for her art. It's the story of one woman who used her relative fame and connections not for her own gain but for advocacy on behalf of others: to raise awareness of an issue, the war in Northern Uganda, which has been called the greatest forgotten humanitarian crisis of all time.

The children in the film repeatedly asked the Americans not to forget them; Melissa and her team have not. They are in regular contact with them, and are resourcing them to keep telling their stories and teach others to do the same. They've also been instrumental in bringing about a piece of legislation that has enjoyed unparalleled bipartisan support and that hopefully will contribute to ending the war and alleviating the suffering of the kids in the movie and thousands like them.

An issue like that one can feel dry and distant - bills debated on in Washington DC to help people we don't know in a country most of us couldn't place on a map. Staging Hope restores the human angle to the debate - more than that, it places it centre stage, no pun intended - and, rather than making me want to channel flick, it made me want to do something.

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