Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Producing African Disability through Documentary Film: Emmanuel's Gift and Moja Moja

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Producing African Disability through Documentary Film: Emmanuel's Gift and Moja Moja

Article excerpt

The article examines two recent documentary films about disability and development; it argues that their seemingly fresh, inspirational narratives of disability and transnational assistance rely upon well-worn images of a crippled, needy Africa and its able, generous Northern counterparts. The disabled African documentary subject helps usher in development work with a sense of urgency in these films, leaving no time to question the way in which imperialism is reproduced within these projects. Through interrogating these seemingly benign 'overcoming' and 'friendship' stories and their celebrations of the virtues and privileges of the North, the authors glimpse the necessary role of Disability Studies in postcolonial theory.

In his explication of the discursive strategies of development that render the 'Third World' dependent on the 'First,' anthropologist Arturo Escobar suggests:

one could say that the body of the malnourished-the starving 'African' portrayed on so many covers of Western magazines, or the lethargic South American child to be 'adopted' for $16 a month portrayed in the advertisements of the same magazines-is the most striking symbol of the power of the First World over the Third. . . . After all, what we are talking about when we refer to hunger or population is people, human life itself; but it all becomes, for Western science and media, helpless and formless (dark) masses[.] (103)

Escobar is speaking of the West's power to name, to save, to heal, to grant "life itself " to the Third World. And although he misses this point, Escobar is also speaking about disability. The imagined African body is not only starving but disabled: a stomach bloated from kwashiorkor, a body disfigured in inter-ethnic conflict, or a fragile body weakened by AIDS. Development policies and charitable campaigns have imagined the African body as always, in a sense, disabled.

The disabled African body has gained iconic weight in the global Northern imaginary through a variety of development-related media. North to South development projects, including small-scale missions and entrepreneurial ventures, increasingly draw for their legitimacy upon images of docile African bodies in need of care and rehabilitation. They distribute images not only of impaired bodies in need, but also of a crippled, ignorant Africa and its benevolent, knowledgeable Northern rescuers. These images succeed through their shock value as well as their symbolism: appealing to a white, middle-class audience, they unsettle by drawing the viewer into both voyeurism and charitable sentiments. Simultaneously, images of a disabled Africa provide a comforting synecdoche with deep colonial resonance: the continent of Africa is presented as a child who is ignorant, under-developed, and in need of rescue. Because images of disability in public relations materials, popular events and documentaries both legitimize and motivate Northern action, it becomes important to understand the significance of these representations and to question the ways in which prevailing discourses of disability and development become mutually reinforcing.

In this article, we explore how two recent popular documentaries integrate well-worn disability narratives with what David Spurr calls the "rhetoric of empire": a set of discursive strategies that dates to colonial times, surfaces in contemporary Northern media representations of the South, and helps to maintain North/South power inequalities. In so doing, they repackage neo-colonial relations as empowerment and partnership. Like Roxanne Doty in her Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations (1996), our purpose is "to examine how certain representations underlie the production of knowledge and identities and how these representations make various courses of action possible" (5). We trace ways in which these films promote and justify particular kinds of transnational disability-and-development interventions, and how, in doing so, they stabilize particular understandings of disability and reinscribe neo-colonial identities and relational structures. …

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