Fighting The DarknessAug. 24, 2006
A camera slowly pans over a wall in an old hospital room. From the rafters, the wide-lens view captures the image of children, perhaps more than 100, packed tightly on the floor. The Ugandan boys and girls sleep together in such close quarters that the rotted blankets and mats beneath them are barely visible.
Sean Walker, a former Baylor student from La Mesa, Calif., who was drafted by the Houston Astros last year, saw this scene in 2003, before it became part of the independent documentary "Invisible Children: Rough Cut."
Walker is a lifelong friend of Laren Poole, one of the filmmakers, and after he saw his friend's footage, he was determined to raise awareness.
"I was wanting desperately to be involved in any way I could," Walker says, "... to try to get the word out here at Baylor. Especially when they were doing a national tour, I thought it would be a perfect time to bring Laren out to visit the campus and at the same time, be productive and show some screenings."
Poole, 22, a former student at the University of California San Diego, went to Uganda in March 2003 with his friends Bobby Bailey, 24, and Joshua Russell, 27.
The filmmakers originally went to document the crisis in Sudan, but after crossing the border to northern Uganda in search of their story, they discovered the plight of tens of thousands of children being abducted by a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army.
In the film, children say that they were forced to kill, rape and mutilate for the LRA. Some of the former abductees said they killed other children and their own family members under threat of violent death. Although no official count exists, the Northern Ugandan Crisis Response Act estimates that between 16,000 and 26,000 children have been conscripted.
The documentary features footage of hundreds of children walking from their rural homes every afternoon to sleep on streets or in hospitals to avoid encountering the LRA, which is based in the remote areas. Even then, aid workers interviewed by the filmmakers say that these commutes include the danger of being raped or beaten along the way. In their interviews, children say they fear Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, and being taken to "the bush," the wilderness, where they are forced to murder or die brutally.
As one interviewed aid worker says, "The children live beyond fear."
Baylor audiences first saw the film in 2005 at chapel, at both University Baptist and Antioch Community churches in Waco and at the Common Grounds coffeehouse, among other local places.
"Last year we literally introduced the video and played the video. Period," says Ryan Richardson, Baylor's chapel director of worship and media. "And it was impacting, impacting so much in fact, that they sent 30 or 40 copies of the video to our office, and we gave those out to student organizations that played them. ... Last year it was really fledgling, and it's still a grassroots thing. But last year it was a fledgling grassroots thing."
The filmmakers had enlisted help and began a nonprofit organization named Invisible Children after their movie, and in the spring of 2006, the group began a three-month national tour. Dozens of college-age volunteers split up into seven recreational vehicles and held about 400 showings across the country.
"Meeting all the people is really the highlight, being reassured that there are more people out there who care," says Laura Hutchinson, an Invisible Children volunteer who is a student at California State University, San Marcos.
Hutchison had worked at Invisible Children's office in San Diego for four months while planning the East Coast RV tour, and she joined the Texas tour with three other volunteers.
The tour promoted the April 29 Global Night Commute. Those involved commuted and spent the night outdoors at an assigned section of their city downtown to imitate the way Ugandan children commute for safety. In Waco about 700 people congregated at Heritage Square (see sidebar).
Natalia Angelo, BA '04, the public relations director for Invisible Children, constantly updates media across the country as to the status of the movement.
"It starts when I wake up and ends when I go to sleep," she says of her job. "It's a huge project to call media in virtually every state, keeping the press updated, announcing every week who's involved."
The movement continually receives celebrity support. National Treasure movie director Jon Turteltaub says the movie "has had a bigger impact on my life than any other documentary I've ever seen."
Thrice, a hard rock band, made an allegorical video for their single "Invisible" based on the northern Ugandan crisis.
Kristien Bell, a star from the "Veronica Mars" TV show, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., are among those who planned to sleep outside during the Global Night Commute.
Angelo had worked in public relations in Ghana for an AIDS organization after graduation.
"I've always had such a passion for Africa," Angelo says, "After having gone there right after college, I knew that [helping Africa] was something I wanted to do, but I didn't know how I could combine what I was good at with what I wanted to do."
The Invisible Children tour stopped in Waco on March 1. Poole and the four volunteers spoke to hundreds of students before and after the presentation and showed a 35-minute version of the film during chapel. Baylor students passed out fliers promoting the full movie screening later that evening.
"I thought it was 10 times more impacting than anything we've ever done with Invisible Children," Richardson says. Since people in the students' peer group spoke about the video, Richardson says the presentation was "a big stair step up. ... Most of our speakers in chapel are ministers in their profession. They've definitely established themselves in their field more times than not. ... And then we have somebody [the students'] age saying, 'Christ has done something so radical in my life that I'm actually going to get up and do something about it.'"
At a Bennett Auditorium airing of the film, the tour volunteers sold T-shirts, caps and Ugandan-made bracelets to fund programs that provide education for the Ugandan children and jobs for those living in areas wracked by war.
University Baptist Church provided the crew's next venue. UBC was planning a fundraising concert in order to go to Kenya with Baylor's Africa 06 mission trip, so when Walker contacted Ben Dudley, community pastor, about a viewing of the documentary, Dudley suggested combining their two events.
"Invisible Children: Rough Cut" aired at the Waco Hippodrome and at Common Grounds the following night.
"A child's right to be innocent is really my heartbeat," says Common Grounds' founder Jill Mashburn, BA '95.
Mashburn is impressed with Invisible Children's grassroots efforts and can relate to the filmmakers' entrepreneurial approach.
"I'm so proud of them," she says. "I know what it takes to gather people and make them aware."
The crew then showed the video to several First Baptist Waco Sunday school classes. College and youth group members gathered with older members to watch the video.
Grant Teaff, a First Baptist Waco member and former head coach of Baylor football, says 70 to 80 people saw it.
"The thing that struck most everyone, and it certainly did me, is the rather helplessness of the situation. Interestingly enough, [the volunteers] weren't looking for money; they were looking to bring awareness to the situation, and I think they certainly did that."
Beyond awareness, Teaff made a direct donation to the cause. He provided his blue Chevy Blazer when the volunteers' vehicle broke down.
"They made at least two trips to College Station in the car," Teaff says. "I was just happy for them to use it."
The viewings didn't always attract the expected turnout. Baylor was the first place where Invisible Children volunteer Tiffany Tripson, a 2005 graduate of Texas A&M University, encountered elements of overexposure.
"People would say, 'Yeah, I saw that last year,' as if they watched 'Mission: Impossible 2,'" Tripson says. "This is not a fad; it's justice."
Tripson says, however, "It's good that Waco is aware. Most people don't know at all."
Angelo says she hopes that the tendency of Baylor students to involve themselves, whether in All-University Sing acts or service projects, will aid Invisible Children's cause.
"I think that my expectations are higher for Baylor than most other schools, because I know the ... caliber of people that go there," Angelo says. "I just remember from being at Baylor the spirit and genuine love for other people that you find. ... It's a certain kind of person that goes to that school. I know it brought the best out of me when I was there."
To find out more about the invisible Children, visit www.invisiblechildren.com