Three college students, one camera and a goal to make a difference

Brenna McNamara

The documentary Invisible Children raised eyebrows after being passed around college dorms, jumpstarted a non-profit organization that helps raise millions for the people of Uganda and will soon be a feature film.

Courtesy Invisible Children

Credit: Ron Soltys

When Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole traveled to Africa, not long after graduating college, to cover the upheaval in Sudan in 2003, they learned of a lesser-known devastation in Uganda — a war that causes children to flee during the night to escape being captured by rebel forces. They stumbled back to the United States with footage that stung, said communications director Carolyn Sams, who stumbled upon her current job as communications director years of working with what became the Invisible Children organization.

And we have the chance to stumble upon the Invisible Children today.

Sams was a friend of Bailey’s at University of Southern California before he left for Uganda in 2003 and was shocked by the footage when he returned.

“They didn’t have formal documentary experience. They just got the camera off eBay and went,” she said. “I think a lot of people will think if three average guys can do that and potentially end war, that is powerful.”

The instant reaction of the documentary was people asking how they can help, said Sams. “We never anticipated an organization,” she said.

Because the filmmakers were just out of college when the documentary was shot, college-age kids have easily connected to the film and feel like they can personally help out, which is how the organization grew so huge, Sams said.

The filmmakers have continued to collect footage since 2003 that will be used for the upcoming feature film, aimed for release in 2009.

“The film will be from a young perspective relatable to people between 15-25 because it is their own peers,” she said. “It’s not anyone older. It’s not Al Gore giving a presentation or anything. It’s our own generation doing it.”

The film is being worked on independently. No partnerships have been formed with a production company yet, said Sams.

Students today will be able to view another shorter Invisible Children documentary titled Sunday, after a child who lives in one of the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, Ugandan settlements with horrible conditions where the northern population was forced to flee in 1996 because of rebel activity.

The film Sunday is just one of the four, soon to be eight, films about the individual story of a Ugandan child.

The filmmakers returned to Uganda six months after their initial visit to figure out a way to really benefit the people there and economy, said volunteer Kevin Barnes.

“They found stories, talked to people,” Barnes said. “They befriended the kids.”

The story that was most representative of the children’s suffering was documented. Each child’s story was turned into a short documentary that is attached to a bracelet that symbolizes the child, said Barnes who worked for a year in one of the IDP camps as an operations officer overseeing the bracelet campaign.

“The most effective way for people to learn something is by a story and that is why Invisible Children is media-based,” said Barnes who has met the four children that the bracelets represent. “We show stories of these people. To me, hearing their story in their own words about is one of the most moving and inspirational things.”

The bracelet/documentary packages being sold at the screening today for $20 are part of a campaign to jumpstart the economy in Uganda by allowing people in the towns to make the bracelets which are sold by Invisible Children, who recycles the money back to Uganda, he said.

There are currently four bracelets and stories that will be sold at today’s screening. A fifth of eight bracelets and documentaries will be available in a month or so.

Invisible Children is always looking for volunteers or people who want to help, said Sams. “We want the person helping to feel like they are doing more than giving a dollar, we want them to feel like they are investing talents and who they are — their uniqueness,” she said.

The “roadies,” the three volunteers who will be here today, invest in the people they are visiting and listen to their ideas, said Sams.

“There are so many students who just need that extra support to do this and to really feel personally involved,” she said. “It’s not just donating money.”

Bracelets (in order of release)

Innocent (white)

The white bracelet represents Innocent, a child forced to walk five miles during the nights from a rural village to avoid getting abducted by rebel forces. In April 2006, 80,000 people across the United States did the Global Night Commute, walking five miles to symbolize the children that must do this nightly.

Grace (green)

The green bracelet is represented by Grace,17 years old at the time her video was filmed, who was abducted by rebel forces and impregnated. She escaped during her pregnancy and, at 19, is now is raising her child.

Emmy (red)

The red bracelet represents the youngest child Emmy, still in primary school, whose parents died from AIDS.

Sunday (black)

The black bracelet represents Sunday, who lives in a Internally Displaced Person camp. In these camps, there is no clean water, no way to get a job and no food. When they were first resurrected, about 1,000 people died per week in them.

Coming out in the next month:

Roselyn (blue)

The blue bracelet, not yet sold, represents Roselyn, a 16-year-old girl suffering from AIDS.

(Source: Kevin Barnes)

Contact all reporter Brenna McNamara at [email protected].