Human Rights Watch Interview: Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine of Good Fortune

Director Van Soest

Co-director Van Soest

An incendiary look at the difficulties that foreign aid has unintentionally exacerbated in some Africa’s most impoverished regions, Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine’s Good Fortune, which screens tonight at The Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, traces the effects of a UN sponsored initiative to renovate one of the world’s largest slums, Nairobi’s Kibera. As this fascinating and infuriating doc illustrates, Kenyans in both the slums of Nairobi and the wet farmlands of the countries Western provinces are struggling with well meaning but poorly conceived and paternalist encroachment from the west.Van Soest, a fulbright scholar who studied in Kenya in 2004 at the Center for International Development and Public Health before embarking on this documentary, hopes that the film can “challenge people to think about things in a broader context.”

Van Soest bemoans the “top down approach” of most international aid organizations, claiming that a “bottom up, grassroots approach”  that focuses on incremental change at the local level is best suited to solving Sub-Saharan Africa’s myriad problems. Talking about the ways in which major aid organizations view their work, Van Soest sees a “development philosophy spoken of as a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Africa in a number of publications, the idea that you can go in there with a tremendous amount of money and change things very quickly, I don’t think its a healthy way to promote social change in general,” he said. “In the five years that I’ve spent traveling to Kenya, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of change, and I think that things are changing and in fact I think we’re trying to impose change at much too fast of a rate.”

The film intercuts the struggle of one Kibera based midwife to keep her business afloat amidst the slum’s infrastructural changes with that of a family farm that is threatened by a multi-national’s plan to build a mechanized rice farm, one which could conceivably produce enough rice to help alleviate hunger in that part of the country, but not without flooding the lands of nearby independent growers. As Levine points out, in both situations “The west needs to be involving the communities in every step that we’re claiming to help. It’s the difference between going in with our own ideas of how to help as opposed to asking, ‘how can we assist, how can we move forward?”

-Brandon Harris

Good Fortune, which premiered at SilverDocs last month, will screen at Lincoln Center tonight at 6:30, with a Q&A with the filmmakers.

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