Tanzania: A Journey Within: Film Review
A mismatched pair of friends take a road trip through Tanzania.
A privileged white American and her African friend return to the latter's home country in Sylvia Caminer's Tanzania: A Journey Within. An oddly context-free travelogue that offers us little reason to care about these particular protagonists, the film benefits from strong photography and just enough drama to hold our interest. Despite an expanding-consciousness theme that would resonate with some viewers, the documentary is unlikely to draw much of a crowd in its limited release; it's being presented as much as a charitable event (with ticket sales funding malaria meds) as a commercial venture.
Never bothering even to identify its subjects Kristen Kenney and Venance Ndibalema by their full names onscreen, the film drops us into their African adventure without telling us who they are, how they became friends or why they decided to embark on a multiweek Tanzanian voyage that was surely a costly adventure. Reading between the lines, we eventually surmise that Ndibalema, who came to the States for college and has become quite Westernized in his five years here, hopes to open the eyes of his materialistic, sheltered friend by exposing her to poverty and hardship.
But first, as in so many do-gooder vacations, there will be fun: The two go on a weeklong Kilimanjaro trek, then are chauffeured around the Serengeti. These long sequences are too professionally shot to be dismissed as a home movie. But with so many nature/adventure docs covering this ground with higher production value and more educational content, we might wonder why we're watching.
Then we get to places like the Mwanza region, where Ndibalema begins reconnecting with loved ones and trying to show Kenney how hard it is for much of the world simply to survive from day to day. Admirably game, the latter pitches in for chores and is physically wiped out by tasks her hosts take in stride; she sees communities devastated by AIDS and realizes how much harder women work than men in the villages she'd expected to be simple-living, "idyllic" refuges from the modern world. She is awestruck at her ability to intervene in strangers' lives, saving a child who might have otherwise been doomed to death by neglect; she also suffers a bout of malaria that Caminer ill-advisedly overemphasizes in the film's structure.
Kenney comes away from the experience intent on improving life in the places she visited; her startup business using proceeds from local handicrafts to buy medicine sounds like innumerable similar ventures. A more interesting documentary might start here, finding other Westerners who've been similarly moved and asking how their individual micro-charities fare when compared to the work of larger organizations. But as the film's navel-gazing title acknowledges, this film is more interested in the white woman's personal development than in the communities that might benefit from it.
Production: DolGer Films
Director-producer: Sylvia Caminer
Executive producers: Joseph Perez, Douglas DeLuca, Michael Hinds, Burton Ritchie, Ben Galecki
Directors of photography: Douglas Bachman, Francisco Aliwalas
Editors: Avril Beukes, Rika Camizianos
Music: The Footnote
Rated, 102 minutes