Vivid look at poverty and AIDS in Malawi documentary

Sometimes we can find ourselves swallowed up by the ‘stresses’ of modern life.

Our jobs, the details of our personal lives, pressures of relationships, financial difficulties, fears of the future – you name it. Life in this day and age isn’t easy. It can be lonely too – in spite of our growing ‘connectedness’ thanks to the exploding world of social media.

But it’s so easy to lose a sense of perspective; of what really matters.

I found myself feeling a bit overwhelmed the other day. Then I came across a DVD called I Am Because We Are – an up-close and unflinching look at the African nation of Malawi. The project was produced and written by Madonna.

She said how a woman unexpectedly called her one day to describe the plight of folks in Malawi, which is among the poorest nations on earth and has been horrendously affected by AIDS. After the conversation, Madonna visited Malawi and chronicled her time there with this project, which tackles the subject matters of poverty and the desperation of children in particular head-on. We see the daily struggles of people trying to eke out a living. We see frightened children left orphans because of AIDS. People are shown in unimaginable circumstances.

I sat there so utterly struck by what I was watching. And it’s not like I’ve never seen these types of films before – I like to learn about issues including poverty and social justice.

But something was different with this film, and I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes even documentaries about poverty-wracked places in the world fail to fully engage viewers, or spur them into meaningful action. We get sadly desensitized to the tragedies in other parts of the world. Sometimes you can watch something, feel saddened and helpless about what is being documented, but still get up and continue your life pretty much as you always have.

I Am Because We Are shows Malawi and its people in one of the most complete and thorough pictures I think I’ve ever seen. It shows the grief and hopelessness, but it also shows the strength and resiliency of various communities as well.

Near the end of the film Madonna observes how she saw, in spite of the hardships, real joy in many of the people she met. She added that seeing this type of joy is a relative rarity in prosperous western countries.

I couldn’t help but squirm during the film – some of the information regarding extremely violent episodes literally made me feel queasy. But many other thoughts surfaced, too. Such as how self-centered I can be. I complain easily. I worry about things that ultimately barely deserve a minute of attention. I battle a weight issue – which seems crazy when so many people are barely, just barely, getting enough to eat each day. Or they’re even going hungry.

Next month I’ll be part of a mission to Mexico, and I’ll be reminded of how many people out there don’t have nearly what I do. I admit I have mixed feeling about this trip – it’s not easy to come face to face with folks who have to fight hard to make it in this life. It’s a lot easier to watch it on a screen, and keep it as kind of an abstract notion tucked away. I was awakened to this starkly during a trip to Nicaragua and Honduras back in 2002, and I’m hoping this awareness, which has remained solid, will be strengthened further by this journey.

I think that’s why Madonna’s film, which was actually released in 2008, works so well. Like her or not, she’s not one to shy away from fully ‘expressing’ herself or revealing what’s on her mind in blatant, provocative and at times offensive ways.

In art, you can take it or leave it; love it or hate it.

But when it comes to using that ‘ability’ in ways like producing a film about a often-forgotten African nation where hope can seem like a foreign concept, it’s a most welcome thing.