I was lucky enough to attend the world premiere of I Am Because We Are, the film produced and written, at least in part, by Madonna, and directed by Nathan Rissman, her former gardener. I love that Madonna plucks people from obscurity to take them along on her ride. It’s not out of generosity or pity, it’s a recognition of talent that is amazingly democratic, that cuts through the usual way things are done.
I liken it to how she has chosen some of her video directors and photographers, and particularly to how she saw a student film using her music and Kate Bush’s and hired its creator—Alek Keshishian—to direct what became at the time the #1 highest-grossing documentary, Truth Or Dare. (If you’re a cynic, you could also point to her relationship with former trainer Carlos Leon; this is unfair and demeans their genuine, loving connection, but viewed as fans view stars, it adds to the thrilling idea that one day, Madonna could pull you from the crowd and use her stardust to polish up your own potential in life.)
I had gotten tickets the day-of, thanks to a tip from my Madonna pal "Dave" (not his real name). I’d been hunting for them all week (they were only available as “RUSH”), but then batches opened up and I snagged some. Dave is one of my Madonna “top” friends. A Madonna top is a fan who is aggressive and wants to be sure he misses no opportunity in order to avoid stewing over it forever after. I’m also a Madonna top. I went with my sister and brother-in-law, and with one of my Madonna “bottom” friends, Jason. A Madonna bottom is just as big a fan as a Madonna top, but while he thrills at making it into exclusive events or finding out how to download forbidden cast-offs, his outlook is to be happy in the moment with whatever comes his way, and not waste time regretting any missed opportunities. They’re both great friends I’m happy to know, and I love both kinds of Madonna fan—maybe I’m more Madonna “versatile” than I know...
We were let in and had nice, central seats toward the back at the TriBeCa Performing Arts Center, but I went back out to inspect the red carpet. When Madonna came in—looking lovely in an Africanesque-print ‘70s garment, her white-blonde hair visible here and there as she traveled the press line like a British noblewoman navigating the Sahara on safari—the camera crews went mad. They crowded her every step of the way, but I got some clear footage at the end—she smiled radiantly and waved, relaxed and no doubt proud of the film we were about to see.
(When she did some quick press at the very end of the line, behind gauzy curtains, minders peevishly pressed their fingers together over the seams so fans couldn’t peek in. Isn’t this film about being charitable?)
When seated, I saw Rosie O’Donnell arrive, looking like she did back on her own show. She sat a few rows ahead of us, along with Guy Oseary and the rest of Madonna’s crew.
Madonna was introduced and gave a very sweet, heartfelt speech:
Madonna was then seated in the Rosie row—this was the fourth closest I’ve ever been to Madonna (my friend John—a Madonna “top” if ever there was one—and I once walked past her red pigtails in front of Sound Factory in 1993 and I was in the front row for both Up For Grabs and The Confessions Tour), but I couldn’t see her due to the angle.
The film is a straightforward documentary that pulls no punches in painting Malawi as one of the most desperate places on earth. I found it moving, a tear-jerker in parts. The audience gasped when one boy’s horror-story of mutilation was revealed, and I felt the room was riveted by the information-heavy film. It was interesting seeing a project associated with Madonna that wasn’t so much about her (although she is seen with her adoptive son David, and her personal story of involvement with the country opens the film), and that wasn’t “edgy” or livened up with gimmicks. For example, Truth Or Dare was the original scripted/unscripted reality “show,” and the black-and-white vs. color segments was a stylistic flourish. Here, while Madonna is shown mainly (if not always?) in black-and-white, it didn’t seem so much a flourish as a necessity—her own story is not as compelling as the story of Malawi, as the story of our world.
Read on for more details plus two videos of her entire post-screening Q&A...
She chose well in choosing green-thumbed green director Nathan Rissman; he treats the subjects of his film with as much care as a wealthy dowager's prize petunias, planting seeds in the viewer's minds that later flower into hard-to-deny truths.
The most important point made in the film, I felt, was that the more modernized we become in the West, the less human we become. To some, this could come off as preachy or—buzzword of the millennium—elitist, a put-down to America. But I feel that when Madonna criticizes, she often lumps herself in with those criticisms, just as often being robbed of the credit for that. Instead, she’s painted as a glass-house dweller with a stash of big rocks and terrible aim. Madonna is not saying, “Be like me, for I am perfect,” she’s saying, “Can’t we all do better?” This is enhanced by her voice-over in I Am Because We Are, during which she admits she’s unsure how lasting her contributions to Malawi will be, “But it’s a start.”
I think this is an important concept, and it’s one that anti-liberals do not understand or refuse to try to understand—when someone argues for a better way, the usual anti-liberal reply is to point out the imperfections, not to focus on the baby steps that will lead to a dash toward resolution. By this, I mean people arguing against the fur industry are quickly criticized for wearing leather, as if the cruelty toward fur-bearing animals bears any relation to the use of a by-product of the slaughter of animals for food. Or when a global warming argument is made, there is that pushback that focuses on how many lights you left on in your own home that morning. Or when rich people are chastised for not emptying their own pockets entirely before seeking to raise awareness and cash from the rest of us.
It’s not about one person having all the answers, or even about there being one answer.
Ironically, when popular blog JustJared posted pictures of Madonna from the event, several of the early commenters attacked Madonna for looking bad, old, plastic. Anonymous trolls on the ‘Net attacking a person who is in a position to do nothing about the world’s problems and yet who is making a grand gesture to help solve them are simply proving Madonna’s point.
Madonna fans should also note that Patrick Leonard—someone we all want her to work with again—composed the score, which was somber and insistent, challenging I would say. Also, fans will be surprised to hear Desmond Tutu say, “You don’t have to be rich to be good.” It’s a great line, one that Madonna purloined for one of the most outstanding tracks on Hard Candy (my review TK soon), “Dance 2Night”:
My only criticism of I Am Because We Are is that Spirituality For Kids (SFK) is given a lengthy, jarring plug toward the end. Raising Malawi (Madonna’s organization) was recently criticized as a front for Kabbalah, which it is not. However, SFK is very much a part of the Bergs’ Kabbalah—and this should have been fully disclosed in the film. My personal thoughts on Kabbalah is that it’s part good (who can argue against treating your fellow man as you’d want to be treated? or that our actions have consequences?) and part bullshit (we are not responsible for our own diseases...are we also able to will away old age and death?). I’m not a religious or a spiritual person—I’m a humanist. But there is a lot of common ground in being a humanist, a Christian, a mystic. I am all about treating people well precisely because our time is so limited. Why should anyone suffer if it can be helped?
In the end, the film is a bracing document of man’s inhumanity toward man—which comes in the form of direct action (a Malawian “cleansing” tradition that forces girls to have sex three times a day at first, and that invites HIV as “a guest”) as well as direct inaction (doing nothing once we know there is an issue).
After, Madonna and Nathan Rissman took a handful of questions from the audience, including two from a Brazilian guy who really should have been held to one:
Madonna was relaxed and charming and a bit feisty—just right. I loved when she asked for donations, but as Lav pointed out, she should have done a $1,000-a-pop pic-with-Madonna area immediately after. Even unannounced, I believe she would have raised $50,000 on the spot if not more, and that is a testament both to the power of the film, and to the power of its producer.
Donations to this cause can be made here.