Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Hey VICE: Your documentary is bad, and you should feel bad

Shortly after I posted a review of Mads Brügger’s “The Ambassador”, a film that raised some interesting questions about what constitutes ethical and responsible journalism about Africa, I got a reminder about just how low alleged journalists can go in reporting about places they don’t know. I got a PR pitch from the folks at VICE:

Ethan,

Wanted to hit over a link to War Gin, VICE’s latest investigative news/travel piece on Ugandan alcoholism that I think you will enjoy for your readership. In the documentary, VICE correspondent Thomas Morton travels to Uganda and experiences “Brickellian pandemonium” in the drunkest country on the planet, to learn about the culture of Waregi, the country’s locally brewed moonshine.

You can watch the doc here: http://youtu.be/zL3UHF5SlEU

Ugandans are the hardest drinking Africans in the motherland, both in terms of per capita consumption and the hooch they choose to chug. Waregi, or “war gin,” is what they call the local moonshine, and it makes the harshest Appalachian rotgut taste like freaking Bailey’s.

Additional footage of a goat being slaughtered for a boozy feast can be viewed here, but warning! Graphic footage: http://youtu.be/_4GZDWk_xtQ

Let me know if you have any questions about this piece, or VICE’s news and travel series. Release attached.

Best,

XXXXXX
Communications Associate
VICE

Drunkest country on the planet, huh? Bonus footage of goat slaughter? Not the sort of “investigative news” I usually seek out, but certainly worth a quick watch, no? Particularly since Google searches weren’t helping me figure out what “Brickellian pandemonium” was.

The first seconds of the “documentary” aren’t promising. The narrator, Thomas Morton, begins by declaring: “Uganda’s had a pretty good spell the last 25 years. No major civil wars, a little bit of an Ebola outbreak every so often, including right now, and they are the alcoholism capital of Africa.”

So… let’s unpack that statement.

For the last 27 years, Uganda has been ruled by Yoweri Museveni, an autocrat who’s systematically silenced opposition and clung to power. Evidently the armed struggle between the Achioli people in the north against the government doesn’t constitute “major civic war”, though the conflict spawned the Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for abducting and enslaving children as soldiers and sex slaves. And Uganda’s key role in the two Congo Wars, the deadliest conflict since World War II, evidently doesn’t take the shine off Uganda’s “pretty good spell.”

You’ll be surprised to discover that Morton’s analysis of alcohol consumption statistics is equally careful and sophisticated. He cites a 2004 WHO study that, allegedly, finds “Uganda as the top contender for per capita alcohol consumption in the world, making Uganda the drunkest place on earth.” He then asserts that Ugandans have been drinking even more since 2011. So I looked up the latest statistics from the WHO. Morton is right that Ugandans drink a lot, by African standards. Average per capita alcohol consumption is 11.93 liters per capita per year. That’s not as high as in Nigeria, where per capita consumption is 12.28 liters a year… which is especially impressive as nearly half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, while less than an eighth of Uganda’s population is. So Uganda’s not the most drunken nation in Africa.

And it’s not even in the running globally. Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, the UK and Ukraine all drink more per capita than Uganda. The most inebriated nation is Moldova, which at 18.22 liters per person per year, leaves Uganda in the dust. Uganda’s far closer to the UK, or to the US, which at 9.44 liters per capita, drinks 79% as much as Ugandans do per year.

So it’s obvious why Morton decided to film a story on Uganda’s “Moonshine Epidemic“. He was there already, doing hard hitting investigative reporting on Ugandan sex slang, and on storks, who are scary.

Or maybe Morton chose Uganda because those other harder-drinking nations, with the exceptions of South Korea and Nigeria, are in Europe, and filled with white people. And while poor Africans drinking moonshine makes for great video, who really wants to watch French people drink too much wine?

I watched the whole video. Don’t bother. Morton ventures a whole 40km from downtown Kampala and gets drunk in a village, where villagers slaughter a goat and share it. There’s lots of footage of people getting drunk and acting silly, and embarrassing, uncomfortable footage of people passed out. Morton goes back to Kampala, finds that people make alcohol there too, and also enjoy drinking it. There’s a wonderfully uncomfortable moment in an outdoor Kampala bar, where one of the drinkers Morton plans on documenting gives him an effusive and kind welcome, thanking him for coming to his neighborhood and honoring him as a friend and a brother. For Morton, this warm greeting is more evidence that Ugandans are really, really drunk, as he and his crew are there to make fun of them. He ends by walking through a red light district of Kampala, offering his insightful analysis: “This is sort of Britain’s lasting legacy here – Instead of rum, sodomy and the lash, Uganda opted for gin, no sodomy and hookers.”

It’s a good thing that Uganda exists, because otherwise Morton might have to prove his manhood (one of his Vice bios explains that “his nickname is ‘Baby Balls’ because he is a small man but absolutely fearless”) by exploiting people who are more likely to fight back against their misrepresentation. And, thank goodness, other exploiters haven’t found the comic potential of Uganda – an earlier piece by Morton decries the phenomenon of journalists descending on Detroit to engage in shooting “ruin porn”.

So I responded to the inquiry from XXXX from VICE. My note follows below.

XXXX, do you ever get embarrassed about working for a company whose approach to poor people in the developing world is to portray them in the worst, most shocking and exploitative light possible? Of all the stories one could run on Uganda – a corrupt autocrat and his attacks on the free press, a systematic campaign to persecute gays and lesbians and the role of US evangelical Christians in that persecution, the nation’s role in Central Africa instability – it’s really a priority to let us know that desperately poor people drink too much?

There’s not a prayer that I would run this story except to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. And most of the questions I have for you and your colleagues are about how you manage to sleep at night. War gin, perhaps?

Yours,
-Ethan

PS: “Bruegellian”, not “Brickellian”. You’re trying to compare an impoverished Ugandan village to the scenes evoked by a Renaissance Flemish painter, not a neighborhood in Miami.

And while that was satisfying, it doesn’t address the real problem. Most Americans hear little about sub-Saharan Africa. When we do, we virtually always hear bad news. And most Americans haven’t traveled to Uganda or know Ugandans. So they often find it hard to relate to stories from these unfamiliar parts of the world. It’s a really interesting problem to develop new approaches that get people who don’t know about a country to spend half a hour thinking about it.

I suspect people like Morton justify their work by telling themselves that sensationalistic coverage is the only way to get people to pay attention to African stories. Bullshit. Watch Anthony Bourdain cover some of the same territory in his hour-long celebration of food and culture in Ghana. He visits a village, watches local moonshine being brewed, and drinks it. But instead of showing contempt for his hosts and their culture, he tries to understand it and celebrate it.

VICE gets a lot of attention. CNN has shown their content, as has MTV. Their online videos are widely viewed. That they are this racist, exploitative and disgusting is a problem.

Hey VICE: Your documentary is bad for anyone who watches it, and you should feel bad.

17 Responses to “Hey VICE: Your documentary is bad, and you should feel bad”

  1. good to read Ethan – as a UK visitor to Accra, I had my expectations about that part of Africa exposed and overturned in 2006.
    I spend a fair bit of my time explaining that it is not a land of misery – even while I admit I saw extreme poverty, they did not have the poverty of fixed lack of generosity that I see worshipped by the Randian tendency in USA Republicanism

    Uganda is Stephen Fry’s favourite African country and he has expressed how sickened he is by the shallow approach of most western media.

    He and I share an experience of the loveliness of the people, and how they are working in their own way to develop their own futures – often obstructed or confused by attempts at “aid” and missionary zeal.

    The only people I saw smoking that deadly drug tobacco in Ghana were the tiny number of western tourists –

    Perhaps VICE can do a piece on how the western tobacco corporations that have killed millions with this deadly drug have been resisted by the people of Ghana – who saw through their patronising imperialist BS…

  2. Simon Kaheru says:

    Thanks, Ethan!
    That’s telling them!

  3. Pip Shea says:

    Ethan,
    Thank you for describing so well, exactly why this approach to telling other people’s stories is not ok. It’s a relief to have the reasons so well communicated.
    Almost ten years ago I saw a spread in Melbourne Vice magazine showing homeless people lying in their own vomit on the street. Vice had placed speech bubbles on the photographs with statements inside that took the piss out of them. My outrage regarding this approach to ‘entertainment’ has been simmering away for years, and this recent offering from Vice, has made it bubble over.
    This statement of yours really hits at the achilles of the Vice method, “Morton might have to prove his manhood … by exploiting people who are more likely to fight back against their misrepresentation”.
    Thanks again for your excellent words,
    Pip

  4. Daniel Japaye says:

    Ahh hahah! I hope your wearing a dashiki right now whilst having your whinge.

    Vice have done many different documentaries depicting the darker sides of many different cultures. This is the Vice aesthetic. It has no apparent cultural exclusivity, and why you would seek one for a culture that is not your own is hypocritical and condescending in itself.

  5. Kara Weber says:

    Maybe they really just are…baby balls? Amazing deconstruction of this crap doc, EZ. Too bad the collective brainpower VICE likely harnessed in the making of this doesn’t compete with a single cogent thought – much less a full, thoughtful assessment – from you.

  6. Victoria Luckie says:

    And that would be Waragi not “Waregi” and pronounced Mak-a-re-re university.

  7. It's all the same says:

    Vice fell off long ago…Just watch that retard Hamilton try to trip off of frogs in the Amazon…fuckin’ asshole can’t even show gratitude to people who live such simple lives. Fuck them. They need to start getting shot at more and possibly even blown up. Fuckin’ pansies.

  8. Calton Bolick says:

    Daniel Japaye, what are you talking about? Your own — actual — whinge appears to be an assortment of multi-syllabic insult words arranged on a page rather than, you know, an actual critique of the actual points of the actuall posting. Care to rearrange the words into something coherent?

  9. Daniel Japaye says:

    You guys suck. Why are you so angry at the world?

  10. Sam says:

    Excellent post, Ethan.

  11. Devin says:

    I think one of the most “otherizing,” and regressive elements of the modern dogma of political correctness as it relates to development is the idea that there should never be criticism of the practices of people in the developing world. When you appreciate a person/place in its entirety, part of the relationship should be a kind of mutuality of critical thought. Maybe this documentary was one sided, but to suggest that there should be no criticism of alcoholism in Uganda is dismissive and patronizing. You seem to prefer to view it as just another one of the myriad inscrutable elements of poverty- something to be pitied rather than addressed.

  12. Brendan Bourassa says:

    Devin nailed it and I think this is what Daniel meant by Vice having “no apparent cultural exclusivity”.

  13. I just stumbled across this article and the content of Morton’s video made me uncomfortable because being an African and having lived in Uganda for the last 15yrs, it was disheartening to see the genuine albeit tippled hospitality that was extended to him, thrown back by mockery and a derogatory video… I am glad that the majority saw through it and spoke up…Thank you.

  14. David Kalema says:

    I am a Ugandan and alcohol addiction specialist. I liked the video. It shows the picture on ground and calls upon all sensible human beings to participate in the struggle of liberating Uganda from the chains of alcohol Abuse. Well done Morton.

    David K

  15. Cy Ralok says:

    http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_status_report_2004_overview.pdf page 12 of the report shows 19.47 liters pure alcohol per capita in Uganda. Not saying you are wrong about what they did but maybe there is a problem there? or maybe the WHO got it wrong. That is the 2004 alcohol report he cited from WHO.

  16. zetty says:

    Factual inaccuracy is bad but I’m sick of people criticizing something just because it’s not all-encompassing, or addresses something else than the most important issues. This gave us a small insight of what’s the life and people like in some parts of Africa..

    And you might not like the tone of the film but hey, that’s Vice’s format, they do have a host/presenter, and it’s up to them to decide how to show it. Honestly, I hate the sensationalist/exploitation approach too but most of the Vice films are alright in that regard, not pretending to be something more than they are.

  17. David says:

    VICE is a joke. They make documentaries for stupid people who normally would never watch one. Promoting drug use, promoting Satanism, hell I just watched a documentary which is basically propaganda and racism and it kind of floored my jaw, VICE Japan claiming Koreans drink “Poo Wine”, how does something like that even get a green light? I’m expecting documentaries about real things in Japan, like the psychology behind Hentai or that psychologist who said black women are the ugliest, there’s plenty of weird things in Japan. Lets avoid all that, instead they have countless videos making the place look “cool” with idiotic topics like they’re trying to increase tourism and then they sprinkle in some propaganda, even the comments left me speechless, it is so obvious that they’re being racist. That Uganda video is offensive as hell and the people in it look uncomfortable even being filmed, one dude even says “F*ck you” right to the hipster who is obviously there just to be a dick, he can’t even be honest with the people he’s exploiting. VICE is unbelievably unprofessional. That’s what you get sending a bunch of privileged kids to poor countries, Idk, its all wrong, all of it, they’re so oblivious.

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