November 11, 2009 / 11:12 AM / 8 years ago

Shallow Hollywood drove comedy writer to war zone

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Rebels, kidnapped children, mutilation -- war zones are no joke, so when comedy writer Jane Bussmann embarked on an account of conflict-torn northern Uganda she had one rule: all the laughs would be at her expense.

“The Worst Date Ever: War Crimes, Hollywood Heart-throbs and Other Abominations” starts off in Tinseltown where Bussmann is getting jaded with having to ask celebrities what they wear and making up quotes for magazine articles for a living.

Much better to join the ranks of the “useful people,” she decides. It’s while flipping through a magazine that Bussman comes across a photo of John Prendergast, a State Department special advisor during the Bill Clinton years, who has carved out a career trying to broker peace in Africa’s hotspots.

Inspired, Bussman embarks on a quest to impress the peacemaker and a date is set in Uganda where Prendergast is involved in efforts to end a two-decade rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by former altar boy, Joseph Kony.

When Prendergast fails to show, Bussmann decides to investigate a war that has devastated Uganda’s northern Acholi community, seen tens of thousands of its children snatched by Kony’s henchmen to serve as soldiers and “wives,” and sent 1.6 million people into miserable camps. Bussmann, an award-winning writer for shows including Smack The Pony, South Park and The Fast Show, is currently writing the screenplay of her book.

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: I just wanted to prove a point. I was told by almost every single media organization that no one cares about these issues, and I think people bloody would be, if a) you told them what was really going on, and b) told them in the way you actually think, rather than in the filtered and boring way you’ve let yourself get tricked into using. So rather than writing in a dry news style, I wrote it as though you were having an insane conversation in the pub.

Also I wanted to expose celebrity journalism because I was sick of the whole bloody lie of it. I was sick of pretending that these people had lives that we should aspire to, that any of the things were true, that the interviews had even happened in the first place and that we still subscribe to it. I was sick of being sent to ask people how fat they were.

Q: Had you been to Uganda before?

A: No

Q: Weren’t you terrified?

A: I promise you I had done no research. I tried to sell the story by reading the things off Google. One time I really did have to pretend I’d been cut off because I had no idea what I was talking about. I‘m literally on my way, I‘m about to get on a plane and I decided to talk to someone who’s actually been to Uganda -- a documentary filmmaker -- and he said you’ll get dragged into a bush and get macheted. At that point I‘m thinking ‘no, I’ll be fine because John’ll be there and he’ll look after me when we’re married in 48 hours’.

Q: How did you strike a balance between writing about something so serious and using humor to tell your story?

A: The boundaries I set myself were I was never going to get preachy and I wasn’t going to make jokes at the expense of people with AIDS. All the jokes are on me. The rule I had all the way through was that I would always say what I was thinking and I think the reason why people like the book is because they have thought it too. And that’s why I think I got away with it. If you’re talking to 900 school children at 9 o’clock in the morning under an African sun, you’re not thinking ‘I‘m so privileged to be here’, you’re thinking ‘sun damage’.

Q: Do celebrity humanitarians like Angelina Jolie help?

A: John Prendergast said it well. He said basically people listen to them, they’ve got a platform. The question is it’s all very well if they’ve got a platform, what are they talking about? What’s true of Angelina Jolie is she could have made Tomb Raider 4, 5 and 6 and been stinking, stinking rich but instead she chose to traipse around some quite miserable places. I’ve been to some of these places -- the problem is they are sweaty and hot. Most actresses spend the whole time trying not to look shit and she’s been to places where you can look quite sweaty and unpleasant. She walks it like she talks it and everyone can tell you from MSF (Doctors Without Borders) down that if she turns up she’s done her homework and it’s not lip service.

Q: What’s wrong with the way donor aid is given to Uganda?

A: Three words: direct budget support. You could do so much good with microfinance, why are we still putting money directly in the coffers of a regime that somehow can’t catch one rapist even after he kidnapped 20-65,000 kids? And why should the Ugandan government catch Kony, when the cash keeps coming? Charity -- and a lot of Africans will say this -- is as much about making the person who gives feel good. But why don’t we look at where it’s going?

Q: Who’s going to play you in the film?

A: I‘m really hoping - if I say it out loud it’s going to curse it - but I so hope it’s going to be Robert Downey Jr. It’s the one thing he needs to grab that Oscar back. It’s so overdue. Chaplin was nothing compared to lovelorn British girl crying for a bloke she hasn’t got a hope in getting.

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