Genocide on the small screen: Sudan as “Advo-tainment.”
By Leshu Torchin
Several weeks ago one of the few evangelical programs on network television, 7th Heaven, moved into advocacy-territory with its “Lost and Found” episode, wherein one of Reverend Eric Camden’s ever-expanding brood, Ruthie, encounters something like the real world beyond fictional Glenoak, California. Ruthie and her boyfriend Peter are lost when they stumble into this reality and meet two Sudanese “Lost Boys,” Jacob Puka and Nicodemus Lim: real-life refugees playing refugees.
In the real world the “Lost Boys“ are victims of a Sudanese civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. Puka and Lim were two of approximately 17,000 other boys driven from their homes in 1987, fleeing massacres now often regarded as ethnic cleansing. Without provisions, the boys trekked across the desert, first to Ethiopia, risking starvation, dehydration, exhaustion and wild animal attacks, then, after Ethiopia fell into its own civil war, to Kenya, where they remained until aid-agencies arranged their transport to the United States. (Puka and Lim are among 100 Lost Boys resettled in San Diego County and enrolled at the Christian Point Loma Nazarene University.) The Christian identity of the victims, the story of their tribulations in the wilderness, and the innocence suggested by their name helped make the Lost Boys effective evangelical cause.
Their plight is arguably overshadowed though, by the show’s real lost-and-found hero: the Reverend Camden himself, who according to the show’s website, has recently overcome a crisis of faith. “Having worked through his personal problems,” the site summarizes, “Eric will now take on the world’s problems as he becomes an activist working to solve society’s big issues.” Jacob’s and Nicodemus’s tale of suffering, which Ruthie describes to her mother as “horrible” and “wonderful,” is a useful embodiment of these “big issues,” and becomes fodder for Rev. Camden’s Sunday sermon. We may, he notes, feel “bogged down” by life’s problems, but there are others, such as the Lost Boys, who have endured terrible hardships, and whose “sweet sense of joy and optimism” should be a lesson to us. He closes by quoting Jacob: “I may be called a ‘Lost Boy,’ but I was never lost to God.”
Reverend Camden’s sermon was reminiscent of another “horrible”/”wonderful” story-made-film: the 1919 adaptation of Ravished Armenia: The Story of Aurora Mardiganian, The Christian Girl Who Lived Through The Great Massacres (Kingsfield Press, New York), which chronicled the suffering of 17-year-old Aurora Mardiganian (starring as herself) and other Armenians at the hand of the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire.Ravished Armenia depicts not only deportations and massacres but also the sexual violence implied by its title—a significant part of the violence to be sure, but overemphasized. It was this aspect that the press fixated on, and that excited public interest. The New York Times wrote of “Turkish Harems” and “Turkish Slave Markets,” and the Los Angeles Evening Express saw the film’s model in the “conventional Arabian Nights slave market and harem scene,” wherein, “‘with other naked girls, pretty Aurora Mardiganian was sold for eighty-five cents.’” After the deportations, massacres and rapes,Ravished Armenia ends with Aurora’s arrival at the American mission in Tiflis.
The film was a commercial venture, produced by early film pioneer Col. William Selig and directed by Oscar Apfel, better known for his later work with Cecil B. DeMille. Harvey Gates, a Hollywood screenwriter, received credit for “interpreting” Mardiganian’s published testimony. Yet this film was also declared “the official photo-drama of the National Motion Picture Committee of the American Committee for Relief in the Near East” (affiliated with the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, later to become Near East Relief). Indeed, not only was the publication circulated under the auspices of the Committee, but Nora Waln, the Committee’s publicist, is officially credited with the film’s scenario.
Other filmmakers had tried to influence public opinion, but Ravished Armenia was the first movie made explicitly as a work of advocacy. It marked a point when advocacy groups began to explore the possibilities of film—vivid and capable of massive outreach—with movies such asAlice in Hungerland, Seeing is Believing, One of these Little Ones, Uncle America’s Golden Rule, and What the Flag Saw. Many of the films made use of the child actor Jackie Coogan, who, according to NER Director James L. Barton, “visualized for the Near East the child interest of America.” These later publicity actions of Near East Relief were “filler” film-shorts, screened between Coogan’s commercial features. Audiences coming to watch Coogan in comedies like Peck’s Bad Boy (1921) or Trouble (1922), also saw him in Armenia, Syria and Greece, where he encountered orphans, refugees and the NER aid-workers ministering relief. The shorts invariably closed with the listing of local venues where audience members could contribute their work or money.
As clipped and sentimental as the shorts might have been, NER’s advocacy goals remained forefront. Far from subjugating mission to entertainment, they narrowed their appeal to a self-selecting audience of the already concerned, who were required to pay an additional fee or bring a food donation like evaporated milk as part of their price of admittance. By participating in this mandatory charity, viewers had already opted into action. Moreover, NER’s films were screened not just in theatres, but also in churches and schools, at community luncheons and hotel banquets catering to specially-formed committees. Often, they were an impetus for larger group activities, such as “Golden Rule Sunday,” whereupon families donated the cost-equivalent of their normal Sunday dinner, while restricting themselves to an “orphanage-sized” meal—again, a gesture of at-least symbolic action and empathy.
On the surface, 7th Heaven seems to offer a similar effect. Ruthie Camden fills Coogan’s role as America’s child-interest in the plight of the Sudanese: an example of “pure,” childlike compassion and what’s meant to be read as empathy. While lost, Ruthie and Peter are separated from the usual comforts of money, food, and community. Much is made of their hunger, not just during their misadventures, but again in Ruthie’s retelling of it for Jacob and Nicodemus. It’s in answer to this seemingly empathetic stance that the Lost Boys tell their story. The connection drawn in the television show is aggressively facile, and yet the sentiment makes some sense: for a suburban American child to relate to the Lost Boys’ experiences would be nearly impossible; the attempt to expand a shared kernel of sentiment into empathy makes more sense, and if sincere, could at least make for a noble failure.
7th Heaven’s failure is not of this sort. The show fails not because advocacy work has no place in commercial entertainment, but because the “advocacy” here is thoughtless. This comparative insincerity is reflected in the lack of “follow-through,” or grounding of the topic in real life, offered by the show. While NER’s films mandated at least token acts of compassion from its audience members, 7th Heaven fulfilled its obligation to its real-world-inspiration with a one-time display of contact information that was not reprinted on its own website. Though the site links to abstinence and “Rock the Vote” websites, nothing can be found concerning the Lost Boys of Sudan.
So cursory a mention seems less an attempt to recruit or impassion, than the payment of a royalty for copyrighted material: a gesture of concern for the loan of such grave, compelling images. But while objectification may be unavoidable in making complex subjects sitcom-size,7th Heaven’s Lost Boys are made even less than objectified stand-ins. They’re punctuation in a sermon about the lessons the Camdens can learn. They exist in Glenoak, not to encourage action, but as a source of wonderment and vague, passive inspiration—a reminder to the American audience of its own good fortune. What active inspiration could be wrung from this “don’t whine, eat your vegetables” morality is further diluted by the Lost Boys’ “rescue” by America: a tidy end that implies closure for the larger struggle as well, it produces neither action nor empathy, but reinforces complacency by making use of pain, and showing pain to be useful, while doing nothing of use in return.
Leshu Torchin is a PhD Candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University. She works on issues of genocide, media and human rights advocacy.
Read more about Sudan and the Lost Boys:
Megan Mylan’s and Jon Shenk’s Lost Boys of Sudan