A closer look at famine victims and rescuers

Although almost 7 million Ethiopians were helped by the flood of famine aid last year, there still remains a residue of uncertainty as to the effectiveness of the outpouring of money, food shipments, and volunteers. Faces in a Famine (PBS, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) is a vivid, probing, disturbing survey of the relief efforts in personal terms. Its pictures and interviews focus on the methods and motivations of the variety of individuals drawn to the site of the human catastrophe -- everybody from TV producers and nurses to ``famine tourists'' and ``disaster groupies.'' In a series of poignant portraits, author Robert Lieberman and a film crew from Ithaca (N.Y.) Film Works and WCNY/Syracuse contrast the words of self-centered Americans with the actions of selfless relief workers and starving Ethiopians. At the same time, experts on the scene stress that goodwill is not enough. Some of the volunteers who appeared in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, reveal the futility of undirected well-meaning interference.

While the world may be weary of photographs of starving Africans, the film makes it clear that these pictures of famine are what finally raised the world's consciousness to what was happening in Ethiopia and motivated life-saving efforts.

In a fascinating epilogue, Mr. Lieberman talks with the Rev. Colin Bottell, a resident of Ethiopia for the past nine years, about the current situation there (still around 40,000 orphans, but many fewer people starving). Mr. Bottell points out that the Irish and Danish nurses seemed to have done the best work. ``Sincerity and sympathy are not enough,'' he explains. ``A certain detachment is essential.''

Lieberman also reports on the current whereabouts of the individuals featured in the film, and, not surprisingly, most are continuing their humanitarian work, whatever the deep-seated motivation may be.

``Faces in a Famine'' is a unique study not only of victims in the world, but of those who work to alleviate their misery. While it may be true that ``a certain detachment'' is necessary to accomplish the job of saving lives, the film makes it clear that ``a certain commitment'' is also essential.

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