About ten years ago, an anthropologist from South Africa and a documentarian from the United States began to set in motion a film that would explore what they see as the West’s obsession with “rescuing” Africa.
This past weekend, the documentary Framed surpassed its $28,000 goal on Kickstarter, crowdsourcing the funds needed to complete the last stage of filming.
Framed, produced by Cassandra Herrman and Kathryn Mathers, investigates how western images and media have created the single narrative of Africa as a continent that can’t help itself. The film features a Kenyan photographer and activist named Boniface Mwangi, a South African educator named Zine Magubane and the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina (who penned the essay How to write about Africa).
GroundUp spoke with Mathers, a UCT-educated anthropologist from South Africa, about the impetus for the film and the conversation she hopes to begin.
GroundUp: When and how was the seed for the Framed project first planted in your mind?
Mathers: I was doing my PhD at Berkeley in anthropology, and, soon after I got there, I began my research to understand the impact of travel to southern Africa on American ideas about Africa. I was working with this NGO that runs tours to educate Americans about places that they think Americans should know more about, like Cuba, India and Africa. One of the groups that I had a great fieldwork experience with was an international reporting class at UC Berkeley.
Cassandra was one of the journalists in the class, and she’d spent a lot of time in Africa. When I returned to California after finishing my PhD, we met up and both of us were so, I don’t know what the word is, bemused, and fascinated, and confused and angry about the way that Africa had exploded in the West. Suddenly Africa was this pop culture phenomenon, not as an interesting place or as a place that produces its own pop culture or its own news, but as a place that needed rescuing. We started talking about trying to translate critiques of these phenomena into a film.
GU: Your team has been working on Framed for almost 10 years now. What were some of the artistic and conceptual challenges you experienced in getting the documentary to its current stage?
Mathers: Framed is sort of a visual story that tries to deconstruct Africa as a place of need and the hopeless. But it was incredibly challenging to think about, How do you shift those images? Right from the beginning, we knew this [documentary] had to engage people who are trying to do this good work. It has to be a conversation with them. There are so many of these parodies—you could imagine doing a mockumentary about Americans going to Africa, but that’s exactly what we didn’t want to do.
GU: Who is included in the audience of Framed? Is it just America, or is it the entire Western hemisphere?
Mathers: We want it to be as broad an audience as possible. I could say it’s for anybody in a position to do philanthropy, aid or development. But I do think America has a particular relationship with aid and Africa that is not the same as that of Europe or wealthier South Africans. The film is about the particular encounter between Africa and America, using that encounter to speak more broadly about what needs to happen in the relationship between “savior” and “saved” across the continent, and within the continent in countries where enormous wealth exists alongside enormous poverty. Questions Framed raises are definitely important for Europeans and, of course, South Africans, white or black, who are thinking about the disparities within South Africa.
GU: Will you tell us more about the characters of the film, and how you chose them?
Mathers: At the beginning we thought about people who have feet in both places—like Zine Magubane, who teaches young Americans but whose family is rooted in South Africa and is speaking from a South African perspective. We wanted the artist, the creative, the kind of movers and shakers on the continent who were not necessarily involved in aid and development issues. Binyavanga was fabulous—he had founded a literary magazine in Nairobi. And with Boniface, we really came back to that old story we wanted to tell: the one of the encounter between Africa and America. He directly engages young Americans, asking them, “Why aren’t you working on your own society? Stop coming to save us; you can do a lot more.”
GU: You teach a global development class at Duke. What do you tell your American students who dream of saving third-world developing countries like Africa?
Mathers: My students have been fantastic. I do shake them up. I’ve had some very unhappy beginnings of semesters; they can start off very resistant. A lot of students start by saying, “Tell me how to do this better.” But I say that’s not the question. The question is, why. Why are we [Americans] doing the developing? Why aren’t they [Africans] doing the development?
And, you know, of course they are doing it. But I’ve worked for enough NGOs in South Africa to know that you have to keep re-inventing new projects to match whatever the new fashionable cause is that year. You need money to keep the lights on, to put petrol in the car, to have a working phone. That money is hard to get. Even those fabulous big new foundations work within status quos. Most of their money is spent on supporting these massive bureaucracies—that boring stuff that nobody wants to fund. It’s just this endless cycle.
We want the film to be the starting point of conversation. People wanted to talk about it. It’s not “here’s what you do” — there’s not going to be simple answers. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my students, many of whom go to Africa. I say, “Okay, you’re going, you shut up you listen, then you come back and tell me what you think people need. And then we can work on it.”
GU: How much of this responsibility, of reframing the narrative given to Africa by people in the West, rests on Africans?
Mathers: It is the responsibility of Africa to try and understand where these images are coming from. But we can’t reframe these images by simple making new ones. It’s not as if there aren’t amazing African writers and artists and filmmakers and journalists. These days there’s no difficulty for an American to access a local source like that. It’s all out there. It’s not as if South Africans aren’t representing themselves differently and putting themselves out there to people outside the continent. But in some ways, it’s not the Africans’ responsibility to re-educate Americans. And of course there are plenty of people making money off of these imagined narratives, to tell these “traditional stories” back to people. The tourism business is built on it. We live in a society where a disjunction exists. The images that come out of the West—those have more power, more authority. So what needs to shift, and this is a personal responsibility, is: when I see those images, I consciously think, “Which image do I take most seriously? And why?” It’s hard to make people do, to get out of their body and see the world differently.
This interview has been edited and shortened.
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