Bill Nighys' report from Western Kenya was one of the most arresting moments of this years' Red Nose Day show. The film followed Victor, a two year old boy, who was admitted to hospital with severe, acute malnutrition and passed away shortly after. The story is heart-breaking. It forces us, the audience, to face up to the lived reality of people in unimaginable circumstances and the inequality between these people and ourselves. However, we aren't encouraged to engage with the causes of poverty and inequality experienced by Victors' family or the way our lives might influence their situation.
At the end of the film Nighy tries to explain the situation by stating "we got lucky, they didn't, it's kind of that simple". It isn't that simple though, and explanations such a this force people to rely on a logic of bad fortune to explain why people are forced to live in these conditions.
Bill Nighy, two-year-old Victor and malnutrition's forgotten millions - Red Nose Day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5ynoZBqJQA
Earlier in the film, we are persuaded to accept that Victor is dying "...simply because he didn't get enough food". The causes of this hunger are not explained and leave an impression that there is a straightforward lack of food in Kenya. This does not initiate a conversation about the reality of food security in Africa and how our lifestyles perpetuate this.
It is known in the development field that people go hungry, even when food is available, because they lack the resources to obtain it. This role of livelihoods and the impact of global structures on them, is ignored in the film. We are not asked to consider that Kenya exports huge amounts of food to the UK each year. There is no discussion of the effect of land being sold to foreign companies, who produce food for Europe, while paying local workers low wages and taking the profits back home with them. There is no engagement with the role of banks in speculating on food commodities so that families in Kenya are priced out of the market.
As such, we aren't encouraged to explore how our own patterns of consumption might affect the lives of others. We are not asked to reflect on the types of food we eat or the companies that supply it. There is no impetus to consider the patterns of trade between our country and Kenya. Without this level of engagement, we can't begin to consider how we might help address poverty and inequality by changing our own behaviour.
These questions aren't raised specifically because the film is designed to raise funds, not awareness. At one point Nighy states "...the world has gone mad...but in the middle of that madness, lets do something kind and powerful". In other words, the film tells us that we do live in an unfair world, but rather than worrying about the causes and targeting those, we can just make a donation to treat the symptoms.
During the broadcast, comments on social media suggest that rather than reflecting on the lives of the people on their screens, viewers were concerned with the way the films made them feel. Far from eliciting empathy or solidarity, viewers expressed feelings of sadness, sympathy and pity towards these others. A common response, expressed by one woman, was "I wish I could do more than donate", suggesting an interest in, but ignorance of, any other way that her life might interact with the people she was watching.
Victor's family are depicted without considering the wider context of power relations. As such they are represented as powerless and without agency, rather than repressed by the higher power of others. Rather than considering the powerful structures that maintain social inequality, the role of the powerful is given to us, the viewers, who can change the situation only by donating a few pounds (while simultaneously easing our guilt).
It is encouraging that, through films such as this, such large audiences are exposed to the lived realities of people in the poorest regions of Africa. However, in treating the audience as naïve, Comic Relief misses a unique opportunity to engage the public on the underlying causes of poverty, inequality and social injustice. There is no attempt to start a conversation on the ways in which our lives might intersect with those of the worlds' poorest. As such they do Victor and thousands of children like him a massive disservice.