Dir: Nathan Rissman. USA. 2008. 85 mins.
On just about every level, Los Angeles and landlocked Malawi, the second poorest nation on earth, would appear to exist in universes not so much parallel as perpendicular. Yet in I Am Because We Are, the Madonna production chiefly about the plight of Malawian orphans, these worlds converge, mainly in the perception of its star backer. What is lost is anything not already well covered about AIDS over the past three decades (Madonna explains retroviral drugs), not to mention additional information that might help us comprehend the context of poverty and disease in the most deprived region of the globe.
It isn't just because Madonna solipistically appropriates the misery she witnesses, she moves things in such a positive, palatable direction-Hollywood style-that Beverly Hills and Central Park West fare less well than the arid countryside where even basic transport is virtually nonexistent. People are happier there, she explains. We see children dance, sing, and smile. (The accompanying score is lift music.) As a result, this disjointed project faces a stiff challenge, even on ancillary, and seems an unlikely prospect for theatrical,despite Madonna's occasional presence. The enterprise is much too facile.
Amongst the glut of talking heads that she and director Rissman (her former gardener) assemble are some exceptional Malawians committed to helping their own, like the MP Callista Chapola-Chimombo and Mathews AP Chikonda. They speak with conviction, often out in the field, with a fire that the camera readily picks up. Famous commentators such as President Clinton and Desmond Tutu add little, but their participation is harmless, more proof of a connection than anything purposeful. The tourniquet that halts understanding and, at times, empathy, is Madonna's own clipped voiceover, which comes off as insincere, acted. Anyone who has seen her perform on stage has witnessed it. It is not just her technique that enervates a somewhat noble effort: She speaks in cliches, frequently self-serving. 'People always ask me why I chose Malawi. I tell them, 'I didn't. Malawi chose me'.' She can not help comparing the plight of Malawi's one million AIDS orphans to her own life. She reminds us that she lost her mother at the age of six. 'Suffering is subjective,' she says.
The film does offer some interesting historical backdrop, such as the break of what was known as Nyasaland from British rule, but overall it probes only superficially at the underlying root causes of today's horrors. The Malawian landscape is attractive enough, but whoever controlled the look of the film obviously did not trust the viewer: scenes are speeded up and cut rapidly, unnecessarily gussied up, as if we should not look too closely.
I Am Because We Are does focus on some individuals, many with horrendous stories of stigmatisation, starvation, and mutilation (the countless colorful funerals add more local color and texture than enlightenment). Their names printed on the screen feel mannerist. All of a sudden the tone shifts toward a hopeful future. Taking responsibility for one's actions becomes a solution, as does some abstract interconnectedness with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, such naïve optimism diminishes some of the harrowing tales and images we witnessed earlier. (Kristen Ashburn's stills are stunning.). 'People are the same everywhere,' Madonna tells us. 'We all want to love and be loved.' Is that a valid comparison at this time of such extreme disparity'
Semtex Films (Nathan Rissman), London
Danny B. Tull
Main cast (interviewees)
Desmond M. Tutu
President William Clinton
Prof. Jeffrey D Sachs
Dr. Paul Farmer
Mathews AP Chikonda
Prof. Eric Borgstein
Hon. Joyce Banda M.P.
Callista Chapola-Chimombo M.P.
Heath Grant, Ph.D.