Kessy, Regina (2014) Decoding the donor gaze: documentary, aid and AIDS in Africa. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

The discourse of ‘the white man’s burden’ that originated in the nineteenth century with missionaries and colonialism still underpins much of the development ideology towards Africa today. The overwhelming assumption that rich Western countries can and should address ‘underdevelopment’ through aid only stigmatizes African reality, framing it to mirror the worldview of the international donors who fund most non-profit interventionist documentaries.

In the ‘parachute filmmaking’ style that results, facilitated by financial resources and reflecting the self-serving intentions of the donors, the non-profit filmmaker functions simply as an agent of meaning rather than authentic author of the text. Challenged by limited production schedules and lacking in cultural understanding most donor-sponsored films fall back on an ethnocentric one-size-fits-all template of an ‘inferior other’ who needs to be ‘helped’. This study sets out to challenge the ‘donor gaze’ in documentary films which ‘speak about’ Africa, arguing instead for a more inclusive style of filmmaking that gives voice to its subjects by ‘speaking with’ them. The special focus is on black African women whose images are used to signify helplessness, vulnerability and ignorance, particularly in donor-funded documentaries addressing HIV/AIDS. Through case studies of four films this study asks:

1. How do documentary films reinforce the donor gaze? (how is the film speaking and why?)

2. Can the donor gaze be challenged? (should intentionality always override subjectivity of the filmed subjects?)

Film studies approach the gaze psychoanalytically (e.g. Mulvey 1975) but this study focuses on the conscious gaze of filmmakers because they reinforce or challenge ‘the pictures in our heads.’ Sight is an architect of meaning. Gaze orders reality but the documentary gaze can re-order it. The study argues that in Africa, the ‘donor gaze’ constructs meaning by ‘speaking about’ reality and calls instead for a new approach for documentary to ‘speak with’ reality.

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