Channel 9's J.C. Hayward, one of this area's more durable television anchorpersons, has taken on the formidable topic of starving refugees in Somalia in a series of reports that have been edited into a half-documentary called "Somalia: The Silent Tragedy" (airing tomorrow at 8 p.m.).
Leaving aside the question of why a local news program is covering a crisis in Africa, the documentary raises more serious issues. The viewer is bombarded with horror -- children with distended stomachs and malformed heads, covered with flies and infections, a woman with leprosy, a leg amputation in a hospital, people drinking water that we have been informed is "filthy and diseased." But the question must be asked: To what end is the viewer being horrified? Where does a constructive expose end and sensationalism begin?
There is no question that the situation in Somalia is desperate, where warfare between native guerrillas and troops from neighboring Ethiopia have forced an estimated 700,000 refugees into an area largely without water or food. The refugees are mostly women and children who are starving and without much medical care. Relief efforts, Hayward reports, are inadequate.
There is also no doubt that most middle-class Americans are unaware of the extreme contrast between their own well-being and the truly deprived, and they often need to be shocked out of their complacency -- which was evidently the intention of this program. But if the pictures are so horrible that people can't bear to watch them -- such as when the camera lingers endlessly on the woman's leprous foot -- and either turn away or turn it off, has that objective been met?
Is it fair to arouse the viewer's emotion without giving any indication of what could be done to help other than a lame statement at the end that says the makers of the film hope it will "focus attention" on the refugee problem? If the viewer is left with a feeling of hopelessness rather than being inspired to action, the film has only encouraged complacency rather than challenged it. If you're hit on the head with a sledgehammer, you're unconscious, not fighting.
Hayward interviews workers from World Vision, but she tells us nothing about the organization -- an evangelical Christian mission group headquartered in California with relief workers in 78 countries -- nor does she include its address (Box O, Pasadena, Calif., 91109, and contributions can be earmarked for Somalia). She mentions OxFam, a secular relief agency, but doesn't tell us where it is, either (Oxfam-America Inc., 302 Columbus Ave., Boston, Mass., 02116).
Interviews with the president of Somalia, Siad Barre, are hampered by his virtually unintelligible English and by the absence of any background information on him.
The photography is nothing if not vivid, and Hayward's narration is appropriately restrained. But the emphasis on the sad condition of these people verges on the lurid and sensational, and the brevity of context and information on relief efforts lessens what otherwise would have been a film with great impact.