Published April 25, 2008
It’s not new to say that Madonna Louise Ciccone has a lot of nerve. After all, she’s said and done just about everything to get our attention, including a book of her sex poses.
However: The documentary she’s made about Africa, "I Am Because We Are," sort of takes the cake and shoves it in the face of the audience. The film, made by her former gardener but with her imprimatur, debuted Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Condescending? Yes. Unknowing? Oh, you’d best believe it. Naïve? Eminently.
The pièce de résistance came after the screening, when one audience member asked what our government can do or is doing about Malawi?
Madonna’s informed reply: "I don’t know what our government does," she said, eliciting laughter, "except put us into debt and blow up other countries."
Maybe she should look this up: According to USAID Malawi, the United States gives $35 million annually to the tiny country. And that’s just a small example of aid that’s been given and still is to Malawi not just from the U.S., but from Britain and other countries. Simply Google "Malawi" and "U.S. aid" to find many dozens of instances of help that seem to have escaped Madonna’s purview.
But the worst thing about Madonna’s take on the poor southern African country of Malawi is that she and the gardener — Nathan Rissman — deliver a sizeable wallop of the Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles without informing the audience about what’s going on.
Indeed, the film uses Harvard celebrity sycophant Jeffrey Sachs and a number of Malawi's government officials and mixes them in with Kabbalah staff and philosophy. Even Bill Clinton is thrown in. The result is that all these people seem implicitly to endorse Kabbalah.
What Madonna and Rissman conveniently leave out of "I Am" is that SFK, a philosophy adopted by the Malawians in the film, stands for Spirituality for Kids, which is the teaching curriculum for Philip Berg’s Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles.
The Kabbalah Center has nothing to do with Judaism. It’s a wholly original process conceived by Berg and his wife, Karen. Some might say it’s a pyramid scheme. At the very least, it’s a cult.
Madonna and Rissman are clever about the way "SFK" is woven into "I Am." For the first hour of the film, it’s not even mentioned. Instead, we hear and see horror stories about Malawi's children and mothers living with and dying from AIDS. We’re told over and over that Madonna’s foundation is going to change all of this.
And yet, Madonna’s foundation, Raising Malawi, still remains unregistered as an official charity in the United States. Her Web site refers back to Spirituality for Kids, a main division of the Kabbalah Center. High-up members of Kabbalah also are on the Raising Malawi board. Contributions made to Raising Malawi — such as the $3.7 million raised with Gucci in February — go straight to "SFK" and Kabbalah.
The pictures in "I Am Because We Are" are graphic; the stories are hair-raising and tragic. But the overall effect is like watching a late-night infomercial from the Christian Children’s Fund.
Better than "I Am Because We Are," the film could have been called, "Rich Rock Star Discovers Disease and Poverty in Africa." This part of the film reminded me of a story about a newly hired British editor at a New York magazine who returned from lunch one December and exclaimed: "Did you know there was a big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center?"
And you know she is well-meaning. Despite the Kabbalah babble and Madonna’s underlying persistence in explaining how she adopted a child in violation of Malawi law, her narration suggests that she was truly overwhelmed when she first set foot in that country. But this happens to anyone who goes to Africa for the first time. I get it. I felt the same way the first time I saw conditions in neighboring countries like Zambia and Botswana.
The problem with "I Am" is that neither Madonna nor Rissman really has any concept of anything other than her interests. Now that she has discovered Malawi, it doesn’t occur to Madonna that other agencies are working there, that anyone else has ever noticed or done anything to help their people or that the government — theirs, ours — cares one bit. She’s Madonna, she’s arrived and the problem will be solved.
Worse still is that, via her narration, we’re not sure if Madonna thinks the people of the country are smart or stupid, motivated or lazy. She declares the Malawians have a wonderful spirit, then declares that no such feeling could ever be found on Central Park West, Rodeo Drive or London’s Park Lane. (These apparently are the only other world references in her life.) It’s quite appalling.
I’m paraphrasing here, but there’s actually a moment in the narration where she declares: "Can you imagine another place where people are good to each other, care about each other or care about each other?" The actual quote is better than that, but it’s maybe the most ridiculous thing ever uttered on film.
Indeed, the film actually shows Malawi's adults regurgitating Kabbalah propaganda they’ve been inculcated with in order to teach the orphans in their country. (No mention is made in the film of the Kabbalah Center's flying them to Los Angeles for this indoctrination.)
It’s kind of shocking — after seeing all the poverty and disease that’s been imposed on them — to hear Malawi's children then recite back the Kabbalah/SFK dictum that they themselves "are responsible for their choices" and that "their actions can positively influence the quality of their lives." Is the moral of Madonna’s movie: Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps?
The brief Q&A session with Madonna and Rissman came after the screening and — I must add this — a standing ovation from the lemming-like audience of people who probably have never read an issue of Foreign Affairs. One woman behind me kept raising her hand to ask a question, adding "I’m from Africa!" She was ignored.
We have to laugh: both Reuters and the Associated Press, not to mention The Hollywood Reporter, literally stole our Jimmy Fallon story and posted it without credit all over the place.
A quick Internet search proves our point: we told you on Thursday 5:30 a.m. that Fallon was going to be named to succeed Conan O'Brien on May 11 or 12 by NBC.
Fourteen hours later, the Hollywood Reporter suddenly had the same information, which was then picked up by the wires. Good work, guys! It's nice to know you can read. Now, if you could only give credit!
Starbucks, trying to straighten up and fly right, has closed its Hear Music record label and sent all the releases to Concord Records. This can’t be music to the ears of Carly Simon, whose excellent "This Kind of Love" CD is released on Tuesday via Hear. A sophisticated, smart, fun and catchy group of songs, "This Kind of Love" should not fall through the cracks. …
This is actress Michelle Monaghan’s month. Fresh from "Gone Baby Gone," Michelle stars in "Made of Honor" with Patrick Dempsey and which is opening next week. But Thursday night I saw her as the star of "Trucker," an indie film at the Tribeca Film Festival. "Trucker" is a star-making performance for Monaghan, much the same as "Working Girl" once put Melanie Griffith on the map. Look for a lot of awards buzz on her this fall once "Trucker" gets a distributor. James Mottern’s directorial debut is refreshing, unsentimental, and unforgettable. Bravo! …
Re: "Baby Mama": Michael McCullers of "Saturday Night Live" wrote it, not Tina Fey, as I said on Thursday. This explains a lot. While it’s cute, "Baby Mama" lacks Fey’s knowing edge. …
Seen: Natalie Portman and Rosie O’Donnell at the film festival. …
Don’t miss it: Friday night, Matthew Modine’s short film, "I Think I Thought," screens (for the first of five times over the next few days) at 10:30 p.m. at the AMC Village (66 Third Ave. in New York City). It stars Audrey Hepburn-lookalike Ewa de Cruz of "As the World Turns" and Nick Raynes, grandson of Barbara and the late Marvin Davis, son of Patty Davis Raynes, first cousin of notorious tabloid subject Brandon Davis. ...