I have been deeply affected this week by a short campaign film released by War Child, a humanitarian agency that supports children and young people affected by conflict.
In the film, a small boy in a dusty settlement of sorts is walking alongside none other than the caped crusader Batman: getting help with a heavy water container, kicking a football around, playing hide and seek, singing songs around a fire. At the end of the film, the boy falls asleep while Batman carries him. Batman slowly transforms into the boys father, trudging along exhausted, while a military helicopter hovers overhead, against the bombed and smoking remnants of a town. The words: ‘For some, fantasy is the only way to escape reality’ are then shown against a black background.
A relatable tale
I’ve witnessed a lot of aid agency campaigns, not least in the last decade and a half of working in on international development and humanitarian issues, where many of the efforts in question have focused on contexts – especially conflicts and disasters – that I’ve been working directly on. In all of that time, the film is the first piece I’ve seen produced by an international aid organisation that that has reflected my own childhood experience of war.
It took me back to being a small boy in Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s. The country, which had until then seemed like a paradise, erupted in flames and fear and anger. I had just turned eight and I remember listening to a radio broadcast with all the grown-ups in my family, reporting on what was happening across the country. The broadcaster was talking about people being squeezed in twos and threes into used car tyres and set on fire whilst still alive. I was playing with some small sea shells under the table on which the radio sat. My uncle who was the tallest and strongest person I knew was standing by the radio, and I heard him starting to cry. Then my grandmother turned the radio down, telling the other grown ups to get me and my brother out of the room. I remember carrying on playing with the shells afterwards, outside the room. I distinctly remember thinking, as long as I have the shells, and I am playing with them, I’ll be okay.
In the weeks, months and years that followed, until my family were lucky enough to escape the war, playing games was like a protective forcefield around me. It was my own fantastic escape from reality. Everything could be turned into a game if you tried hard enough. Escaping from your house at night time before the bad men turned up to set fire to the town. The ‘keep quiet’ game. Having to leave your beloved family pet behind you when you left because he might bark. The ‘what will my dog be doing today?’ game. Walking across stinking mudflats for hours on end so that you and your family don’t leave footprints. The ‘how sticky can your shoes get without getting lost in the mud’ game. Travelling on a ferry with armed soldiers, and deciding to make friends with them, despite the terrified protests of the grown ups. The ‘how long will an army man let me hold his gun’ game. Playing games helped make sense of and bring some order to it all.
I’m not sharing all of the above to evoke feelings of sympathy. In fact, I have never shared my lived, personal experience of wartime Sri Lanka as a child in any professional setting, until the War Child video triggered this blog post. So why now?
I think it is because I have never seen anything in any international agency campaign that actually reflected my experience as I remember it. What the War Child piece does so brilliantly is reveal the inner subjective world of a child going through war. It shows that a human being, even in the most extreme conditions, is not so different to any of us, whoever and wherever we are.
Catalysing a new narrative about aid
The film brings about feelings of empathy and connection. For me, it has far deeper resonance than the ubiquitous stereotypical images of starving children that dominate the aid marketing landscape. And I am clearly not alone. Many of my colleagues and friends who have seen the film, remarked on its ability to make people think about the different ways in which children are being affected, physically and emotionally, and how children are being supported by those who love them. The whole thing makes viewers think about the strength and the capability of real people living in conflict, and not just see them as defined by their needs.
That the film has won the public vote this week for the SAIH Golden Radiator Award for positive representations in international aid seems entirely in keeping with the courage and creativity War Child have shown. This seems especially apparent against the context of the current, rather retrograde, trend among international organisations towards depictions of poor and vulnerable people as helpless victims, objectified and in need of saving.
Some might argue that the more traditional ‘helpless victim’ depictions and narratives are better at tugging at the purse-strings as well as the heart-strings. But I think that, over thirty years on from Live Aid, in our current era of profound questions about the value and purpose of aid, we need to start a new kind of narrative about aid, where it goes, and why. We do not need more short-termism focused on generating funds, on the basis of questionable assumptions that money alone is the answer, and that the money raised will always save lives. As Afua Hirsch argued eloquently in The Guardian (and again on Newsnight yesterday):
…by showing starving and sick children at their most vulnerable and exposed, [we] go against the idea that their dignity is worth as much as [our] children’s, and create an artificial distinction between “us” and “them”… we are the resourceful and benevolent agents of change; and they are the passive others in need of our charity… [these] stereotypes… are powerful enough – in denying people their agency and caricaturing them as beggars lacking dignity -to create more problems than they solve.
For me, and for many others, the War Child piece is so powerful is precisely because it shows a family that may be no different to our own, undergoing serious trauma. It highlights their humanity, dignity, and resilience, and it creates a connection between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
I think that the kind of representation provided in the War Child film provides an important pathway to a new kind of aid ethos that we should be exploring much more seriously: one that highlights and builds on our shared common humanity, rather than on notions of short-term charity. For an international aid sector struggling with its identity, meaning and purpose, this could well be worth its weight in gold.