MTV gets to the heart of AIDS in Africa

`Diary' is poignant, moving journalism

TV Review

October 09, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Make no mistake about it, MTV's Diary of Bono and Chris Tucker: Aiding Africa is advocacy journalism with a capital A.

Come to this one-hour documentary about a journey through Africa led by an actor and a rock star expecting objectivity and dispassion, and you will be disappointed. But let yourself go with the MTV-style flow of the piece, and you'll be impressed with how much information, context, point of view and compassion can be packed into 60 enlightened minutes of non-fiction television.

As Bono, the lead singer for U2, explains at the start of the film, he's on camera to raise awareness and money to combat the AIDS crisis in Africa. Both he and the filmmakers are up-front about their intentions, with Bono explaining how the film grew out of an encounter he had with Paul O'Neill, U.S. secretary of the Treasury, when he went to Washington trying to raise money for medicine and education in Africa.

"Secretary O'Neill is the guy with the purse strings. And when I met him, I liked him because he's a compassionate conservative. Now we're trying to turn his compassion into cash," Bono says, speaking directly into the camera.

"He was very angry about the way the continent of Africa was being led. He said there is a lot of corruption, and he's right. But I said there are places where the continent of Africa is really fighting back against its problems, and we should be supporting them. A couple of weeks later, he called me back and said, `All right, you show me then.'"

As Bono says this, the screen fills with a rapid succession of images ranging from an emaciated African child with tears in his eyes to O'Neill and Bono climbing aboard a jet.

One of the more impressive aspects of MTV's style of storytelling is that there is never just one narrative on display as there is with a show like CBS' 60 Minutes. With MTV, you get pictures illustrating the stated narrative of Bono and O'Neill meeting in Washington, but intercut with them are images of Africa and AIDS that foreshadow the emotional direction in which the film is headed.

Bono's entourage includes actor-comedian Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) and two college students: Vernon Taylor, a 20-year-old business major from Berkeley College in Manhattan, and Heather Tartarski, a 20-year-old English major from Dartmouth. Tucker and Taylor are African-American, while Tartarski is white. The racial data matters, and is often referenced as when Tucker talks about feeling that he's come "home," or when Bono and Tartarski try African dances.

While there is more Bono than anyone else, the voices of all members are heard. They speak to the camera as if making an entry in a diary.

"May 26, 2002," Tucker says. "I was real excited about going to Africa. First day, I just want to just take it all in. I'm an African-American, and this is just really an important place for me."

If that sounds superficial, it's probably because it is. At the start of the film, Tucker seems worse than shallow; he seems a fool, doing what amounts to uninformed, comedy schtick about Africa.

But by the end of the journey, he has come to what seems like genuine understanding about the people and places he's seen. That journey within the journey, not only for Tucker but also the two college students and possibly the viewers, is what makes Diary so effective.

Some of what the MTV cameras chronicle will make your heart ache, like Eleanor, who is dying of AIDS. She shows the Americans her Memory Book, a scrapbook she made of her life so her teen-age daughter will have something by which to remember her.

Some of what you see and hear will stir your soul, like when a choir made up of AIDS patients sings one of U2's songs to Bono in a folk idiom that is sad, sweet and harmonically sublime. Just when you think there is no more emotion left in the moment, Bono rises from his seat and joins them.

Diary is part of MTV's year-long sexual health campaign. It might not be your father's idea of a great TV documentary, but it is the kind of public affairs programming that does the medium proud.

Documentary

What: Diary of Bono and Chris Tucker: Aiding Africa

When: Tonight at 10

Where: MTV

In brief: An example of how much more MTV can be than just a place for music videos

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