A forthcoming documentary critically examines the “voluntourism” industry, and its effect (or lack thereof) on the communities it purports to help.
When Cassandra Herrman first visited East Africa as a volunteer in her twenties, she was enamored. Because of this, she understands the impulse that has fueled the so-called voluntourism industry, which is now valued at $2 billion and has attracted 1.6 million volunteers/tourists last year.
These days, Herrman is part of a growing number of voices that are critical of the voluntourist phenomenon and the general victim-savior imagery of Africa that pervades Western culture. Her forthcoming documentary Framed is an indictment of this perception of Africa, which Herman says fails to give the supposed recipients of this goodwill any agency in finding their own solutions.
An American herself, Herrman is quick to point out that she is far from the first voice to raise this idea. Indeed, many African intellectuals such as Boniface Mwangi and Binyavanga Wainaina—two of the activists featured in her film—have tackled this theme for decades. But she hopes that the first film on the topic will reach viewers unfamiliar with the arguments and, ultimately, “hold up a mirror to all this imagery in what is a very powerful medium.”
Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi. Photo by Phil Moore
After a very successful Kickstarter campaign last summer, Framed is entering post-production and slated to be released towards the end of this year. GOOD spoke to Herrman about the best way to travel to Africa, the fallout from Band Aid’s 30th anniversary, and Hollywood’s problematic fixation on the continent.
What’s your advice to an American who has a desire to go to Africa and work on a service-related project?
It’s pretty simple: think critically about why you’re doing this. Think about asking before assuming. In so many of these social causes, products, and campaigns, the solution starts with the donor or the giver—it’s whatever the donor or giver thinks is appropriate—instead of the reverse. Which is to say to the person on the receiving end: What’s your priority? What is it that you need? Or, do you even need anything? That’s a really basic thing and it’s what the people in the film are advocating for.
I also think just being honest with yourself and saying, “I want to go see this place and find out what it’s like” is a much more straightforward approach than finding some philanthropic reason to go. If you really want to help, then sincerely ask one of the many African-led projects on the continent if they need assistance instead of participating in a [Western-led] project that undermines a lot of the work that Africans are doing in their own communities.
I would love the film to be the starting place to help people look critically at specific groups or projects and make a decision for themselves by asking questions like “who runs this?” or “what are their benchmarks for success?”
What has been one of the most powerful parts of the filming so far?
We partnered with [the popular Instagram and Tumblr account] Everyday Africa, who do this great work where they go into schools in the U.S. and do presentations about representations of Africa, showing some of their images. They were doing an international workshop for the first time, which we were able to film. It was a Skype conference between kids in a high school in Chicago and a high school in Mombasa, Kenya.
Each set of students made a list about how they each viewed Africans or Americans. It was really powerful to see this—kids in Kenya confront these kids in Chicago saying, “Your list about our continent is: poverty, violence, rape, disease.” And in this Skype they said, “… but we have doctors, we have lawyers, we have so many things that are very diverse.”
What kind of criticism have you gotten since the Kickstarter campaign and your recent Op/Doc in the New York Times?
I'm making this film because I was a volunteer in Africa in my twenties and so I’m very empathetic towards people who want to go over and do something somewhere. But I think people sometimes get a little defensive and think that our message is ‘Don’t go anywhere, don’t engage with Africans, don’t help in any way’ and that’s not at all the message of the film.
We also get criticism for the fact that I’m white and my co-producer is white (South African). We’ve responded to that directly by saying we’re making this film for a primary audience of people who are drawn to go do these kinds of service projects or contribute to these campaigns. The majority of those are white, often educated, often privileged, young people. So I’m speaking from my own experience and trying to reach out to those people—and the people in the film are obviously speaking for themselves.
There’s been a lot of examples recently of perhaps well-intentioned Africa projects missing the mark—Kony 2012, #bringbackourgirls, The Red Campaign. What’s your favorite—or rather, least favorite?
Well #BringBackOurGirls actually started in Nigeria, so that one is a bit different. But what happened recently with Bob Geldof and the 30th anniversary of Band Aid was totally crazy. It was a classic example of a group of African artists who had their own voice and were completely homegrown and then here we are, however many years later, and there was still this Western intervention that’s completely overshadowing it.
That’s an example of not thinking critically. Ok, you want to raise money and support for Ebola, so why don’t you ask or take a back seat? You can provide all your support without completely taking over the platform.
Related to Band Aid, Africa seems to be inextricably linked to celebrity culture, especially Hollywood. What role do you think that linkage plays in the Western perception of the continent as a whole?
One of the subjects in the film talks about the parallels between the 19th-century missionary campaigns and today’s celebrity pilgrimages to Africa. If you look at some of the marketing campaigns then and now, it’s not actually that different—it’s all part of the selling of suffering.
There’s this idea that white people are the solution to African problems and everything comes from that framework. If you start out with that viewpoint, that requires Africans to be helpless or victims in some form. I’m not saying that there are not people that are doing good and I'm not questioning people’s intentions, but [celebrities] are often supporting Western agendas instead of African ones.
… Everything has to come through this white voice and think in a lot of Hollywood films or projects, that’s how it’s presented. If you’re going to keep presenting that to the public that’s what they’re going to be used to. You just have to work a little bit harder to make it just as dramatic, exciting, and compelling without having the white hero at the center. I think that [the media] needs to start doing that more.