“The warlords have been recruiting child soldiers and, in the last 10 years, more than 30,000 child soldiers have been recruited in Eastern Congo.”
The project I chose to critique was Rape of a Nation by Marcus Bleasdale. Fresh off of a headlines exercise in my 308 class I can appreciate the value of a title (or headline, if you will) that sucks you in like this one did. This title is certainly not conservative, but it does an effective job illustrating the thesis of the project. The piece deals with the tumultous state of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war-torn region that has seen an estimated 5.4 million deaths since 1998, according to the International Rescue Committee. Warlords and government forces wage battle daily, and the people of the country are caught in the middle.
The slideshow starts with a rythmic, pulsating drum beat that is accompanied by a series of photographs that present a grim narrative of the country- death, violence, and lots and lots of money. Interspersed between these images is a running tally of the death roll. The number rises in unison with the drum beat until it reaches its final number. Over 5.4 million. The collective impact of the audio, images, and running ticker is a powerful entry point into the story.
The dramatic entry point is only one of the techniques that Rape of a Nation employs effectively. The slideshow uses a combination of sound, photographs, and video to engage the viewer. It also has a graphic that shows the gold and diamond deposits that litter the countryside. The graphic helps reinforce the claims Bleasdale makes about the wealth of the country.
“The Congo is gifted with enormous natural resources… It could and should be a very, very rich country. But in fact what the reality has been in the past years is that these natural resources have been a curse.”
Bleasdale utilizes sound beyond just the opening sequence. At one point the slideshow switches to video of a young Congolese man crouched in some type of fox hole. The video is shot from below him and captures the sound of his heavy breathing while gunshots ring out over his head. The man’s fear is palpable and really serves to draw the viewer into the conflict. Even after the video fades away his heavy breathing continues, now overlayed over more images of violence and death.
“They will pillage, they will rape, they will steal cattle, they will steal goats, they’ll take a chicken at gunpoint just so that they can eat because they’re essentially not getting paid by anyone.”
The sequence of events feels a little disjointed, although that is more a byproduct of the number of terrible things happening in the region than any condemnation of Bleasdale’s work as a journalist. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until I finished the slideshow that I realized the piece was a broad overview of what was going on instead a focalized narrative on child soldiers or disease and illness or the democratic process or any of the other subjects it touched on. The pacing of the slideshow is fine, however. At no point are you disinterested in what Bleasdale (who also narrated the piece and appeared at times in front of a camera) has to say. He touches on a broad span of topics without dwelling on any one of them.
“Just the very smallest of illnesses like diarrhea, the most basic of sicknesses like malaria, which warrant just a small series of pills, they have no access to this sort of medication…”
The actual dialogue of the slideshow was fairly sparse but the pictures say more than any sentence could. Most of Bleasdale’s photographs are dynamic, close shots in black and white. They tend to focus in on a central character or object while the surrounding background is slightly blurred. This allows the viewer to have a clear picture of what the focus and intent of each photograph was. I found the choice of (mainly) black and white photography to be an appropriate one. The bright garb of the people that is displayed in some of the videos would not have fit in with the somber tone of the piece.
The above shot does a good job of focusing in on the child, who conveniently is looking directly into the camera. Another strong camera technique Bleasdale employed was the use of unusual angles in his photography. Very few of the photographs are taken on an even plane.
The thing that Bleasdale does so well with his photographs is give the viewer a real sense of being there. He inserts himself- and therefore everyone who encounters his work- directly into the situation.
I have yet to get in contact with Mr. Bleasdale to discuss his project but will update the post if I am able to…