Last night I watched this documentary:

What are we doing here? is the story of three brothers and a cousin as they travel overland from Cairo to Cape Town, exploring the question of why charity has largely failed to end poverty in Africa. I was intrigued when I read the synopsis, and so I decided to purchase the DVD to watch it (since I couldn’t find anyone else who had a copy).

Overall, I felt that the Kleins did a good job of keeping their own opinions out of their documentary. They never claimed to be experts. They only wanted to learn. And as such, I felt they did a decent job of showing multiple sides of a complex question, always using clips of others’ opinions.

The film lacked a bit of depth because they only spent 6 months filming the video (I felt like the two years it took me to do a very similar trip wasn’t enough time), and they had to skip multiple countries. But I guess I can’t really blame them for that – a multi-year trip is a lot for one documentary.

Sometimes the Kleins struck me as a bit inexperienced or naive, but then they never claimed to have any prior background in development or aid. I would predict that should they do the trip again, they would probably talk to some slightly different people and ask some slightly different questions. But overall, I think they did a good job of managing their task given their prior knowledge.

The best part of the documentary was the light in which they portrayed Africans. The world is filled with images of sick, helpless, impoverished Africans. What are we doing here? features a number of intelligent Africans who are acutely aware of the adverse effects of aid in their countries, and are often better posed to offer solutions.

There were two people that struck me the most. One was a Kenyan woman working in an HIV/AIDS clinic whose thoughtfulness on how to battle both HIV and aid was striking. The second was a Kenyan news anchor who was not afraid to tell a Kenyan NGO worker to “stop whining” about a river having too much or too little to water and to start taking action into his own hands. Unlike many Africans featured in the media, the Africans I know often resemble these women. What are we doing here? gives them a powerful voice.

Overall, it was worth a watch. I wouldn’t necessarily pay for it again, but I’d be happy to lend you my copy.

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