“I miss the love from my mother,” says a child orphaned by AIDS in I Am Because We Are, Madonna’s documentary on Malawi, a small African country ravaged by the disease. It’s immediately obvious why the pop superstar was attracted to the plight of the country’s one million orphans. That Madonna lost her mother to cancer at the age of six, contributing to her drive to become the global icon she is today, has become part of pop culture lore; her dedication to HIV/AIDS education, prevention, and relief—largely due to her having watched many of her friends die of the disease over the years—is no small secret either.
Even the casual viewer could see that Madonna’s interest in Malawi is genuine, that her connection is profound. So it becomes completely unnecessary for the budding filmmaker to later reiterate via voiceover that she lost her mother when she was a little girl—but she does it anyway. Madonna doesn’t afford her audience similar exposition regarding her infamous adoption of David Banda, whom she met while shooting the film: “I decided to adopt him,” she says, “and the rest is history.” That, along with the fact that she has a minimal on-screen presence, is perhaps an indication that she wanted to avoid making the film all about her, but it’s a delicate balance of star-power that she doesn’t always achieve.
Produced, written, and narrated by Madonna and directed by family friend Nathan Rissman, I Am begins with a flashy, paparazzi-style intro and grainy, hyper-saturated footage of Malawi set to electronic bleeps courtesy of longtime Madonna producer Pat Leonard. Fortunately, most of the rest of the film ditches the high stylization and focuses on the issues, the people, and the solutions. In just 90 minutes, the documentary touches on the history of British colonization in the country, the dictatorship that followed, and the stigma surrounding sex and AIDS in Malawi that disturbingly recalls our country’s own recent past.
Understanding said history is essential to understanding the problem of AIDS in Africa, and the film does a good job of connecting that history with the abject poverty and traditions of superstition and sexism that are pervasive throughout the continent. A village chief explains that a man from outside his community will come to “cleanse” an HIV-positive woman whose son recently died of the disease by having sex with her multiple times against her will. He is aware that this will spread the virus, but this tradition, he explains, was around long before HIV/AIDS and shouldn’t be stopped because of it. The people of Malawi aren’t simply painted as victims. The denial and lack of responsibility of the country’s adults, particularly the men, is lamented by an aid worker who takes the filmmakers on a tour of Malawi’s slums and lectures a group of workers sitting around and drinking beer.
With I Am, Madonna uses her global visibility to make a connection between the people of Malawi and us. Building a hospital, a school, or an orphanage isn’t enough to solve Malawi’s problems, she tells us. Changing the culture of hopelessness, ignorance, and violence (children are routinely kidnapped and mutilated or killed), is key to solving any problem, and the image of young students learning about the laws of cause and effect via a game of dominoes is evocative, simple, and universal.
Black levels during talking-head interview segments are pale and splotchy, but the rest of the film is vivid and crisp. Madonna’s narration, Pat Leonard’s tribal electronic score, and Sigur Rós’s songs all sound good.
Extras include a photo gallery, five deleted and extended scenes from the film (none of which seem particularly essential), and two extended interviews, including one with the still Nobel Prize-less Bill Clinton, who, as always, comes across as thoughtful and compassionate.
Madonna’s mother died when she was six. But you knew that already. The rest you probably didn’t know, but should.