Saturday, 23 November 2013

Liberia - The Movies

I watched four movies that were set in, or somehow connected to Liberia. 

Lord of War (2005) directed by Andrew Niccol (New Zealand) and starring Nicholas Cage and Jared Leto.  I'd seen this movie before, but wanted to watch it again, paying more attention to how they depicted Liberia in the movie. 

It's an interesting film and raises some important points about the global arms trade and the destruction it causes in many parts of the world.  I'm not a big fan of Nicholas Cage - there's something slightly irritating about him and he always seems to play really awful, morally corrupt characters, which doesn't help! 

Also, it seems as though not a lot of thought was put into depicting Liberia - the Liberian scenes were mostly shot in South Africa, including the famous scene on the mountain ridge, supposedly on the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone, which was actually shot in an arid area of South Africa that in no way represents the lush jungle that Liberia is famous for. 

The writers also didn't pay much attention to the facts, eg. when Cage's character refuses to sleep with the prostitutes in Monrovia, he tells us it's because West Africa is 'the most AIDS-infested region of the globe'.  Actually rates of HIV infection are relatively low in West Africa and an estimated 1% of Liberia's population is infected with the HIV virus, compared to 23% in a southern African country like Lesotho

Finally, the soundtrack of the movie had a random collection of West African music, artists like Issa Bagayogo from Mali and Cheikh Lô from Senegal.  Whilst it's great to see these artists getting some exposure, it felt a bit like 'any West African artist will do' and there's no direct connection between these artists and Liberia/Sierra Leone.  I find that approach a bit lazy. 

Blood Diamond (2006) directed by Edward Zwick (USA) and starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Jennifer Connelly. 

I'd also seen this movie before and on a purely 'entertainment' level it's quite good but, as with Lord of War - I tried to watch it from a more critical perspective, with an 'African eye' and I can see how it's really just a Western interpretation of life in Africa.  I'm also no big fan of Leonardo Di Caprio, which didn't help (although I love Jennifer Connelly!)

The main African character was played by Djimon Hounsou, who was born in Benin and, whilst I admired Hounsou's acting, I thought the character was very two-dimensional - there was no 'depth' to the portrayal of Africa and Africans and I was left feeling that the political background of the movie was just a romantic backdrop for the love story between Di Caprio and Connelly.  I don't think this movie tackled the serious issues as well as Lord of War did.

Again, the movie was shot in South Africa and Mozambique, so I was disappointed not to see Liberia or Sierre Leone (where most of the story takes place) on the big screen, although I realise that it would have been almost impossible to film in Liberia in 2006 and I'm sure the movie-makers weren't prepared to risk Di Caprio's life! 

At least the music choice was more authentic for Blood Diamond and included a track performed by Sierra Leone's Refugee All-stars.  All-in-all, this movie is a very Western story, which just happens to be set in West Africa. 

Johnny Mad Dog (2008) directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (France) and starring child actors, Christopher Minie and Daisy Victoria Vandy. 

Based on the novel, Johnny Chien Méchant by Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala - this was by far the best movie I watched about Liberia.  Set during the upheaval of the second Civil War in 2003, Sauvaire directed former child-soldiers to create a movie that is brutally honest, horrific to watch and incredibly informative for a Western viewer.

It's hard not to see this movie as a product of the West, as it was directed by a European, but I think there is a big difference between a movie like Johnny Mad Dog and a movie like Blood Diamond, in that, Johnny Mad Dog definitely tells an African story, as opposed to 'a Western story set in Africa'. 

The movie was shot in Liberia and it was thrilling to finally see Liberia on the big screen, including iconic shots of the 'Broken bridge' in Monrovia.  Everything about the production felt authentic and this is probably the closest we could get (or would want to get) to the conflict in Liberia, which only ended ten years ago. 

The movie has been criticised for not having a proper 'plot' and, whilst the violence perpetrated by the child soldiers was pretty relentless, I didn't feel like it was gratuitous or that a structured/romantic plot (like the one in Blood Diamond) would have made a better movie.  A stronger plot would, no doubt, have appealed more to a Western audience.  I'd highly recommend watching this movie, if you want to learn about the conflict in Liberia. 

Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008) directed by Gini Reticker (USA) and produced by Abigail Disney. 

A perfect antidote to the hard-hitting Johnny Mad Dog is Reticker's Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about the Liberian women's peace movement, which was known as the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.  It's an incredibly uplifting story that explains the role Liberian women played in restoring peace to their country.

I hadn't really heard about this women's peace movement before, but I think it's a story that everyone should learn about/watch, as it can really restore your faith in a world that seems to be dominated by male violence, aggression and corruption.

The women of Liberia suffered immensely during the years of political upheaval - rape, murder, enslavement - women always seem to be on the receiving end of societal breakdown.  It's quite apt then, that Liberian women were also in the position to create an atmosphere of peace and bring the (generally male) warlords to the negotiating table. 

It's believed that the current (female) President of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, was elected because of the strength of the women's movement.  Her presidency has recently been rocked by scandals, criticism and allegations of corruption, but I'd like to hope that Liberia's peace movement is a sustainable one, that will continue to influence Liberian politics for many years to come.

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