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Uncovering Sierra Leone’s enemy: us

ANNA BLOOM Of the Record staff
A Sierra Leonean mother and her children rest together at a camp in the film "The Empire In Africa." Photo: Courtesy Cinema Libre Studio.
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Filmmaker Philippe Diaz says, typically, some audience members leave the theater during a screening of his Slamdance documentary, "The Empire In Africa." At times, they leave because of the graphic footage shot during the country’s civil war. Other times, audience members leave because film unveils a darker truth, revealing that the responsibility of the poverty, famine and death they witness, falls in the lap of their own, western country.

"The hardest part to swallow is that we are responsible for the suffering," Diaz observes. "The businessmen, the government ambassadors [in the film] don’t even try to hide it they don’t want to give the wealth back to the people of Sierra Leone Everyone seems to have a piece of the wealth, but nothing stays in the country."

Since he completed "The Empire In Africa," Diaz says he has learned that the independence and freedom returned to the countries of Africa from western empires looks good on paper only. Britain may have declared it gave Sierra Leone autonomy in 1951, but the reality proves otherwise, according to Diaz.

The documentary reports that one in four children die before the age of five in Sierra Leone and that most of the population lives on $1 a day.

To uncover the root of Sierra Leone’s poverty, Diaz, a Los Angeles-based producer and founder of the film distribution company, Cinema Libre Studio, had to become a director.

"There were a lot of directors who were interested in making the film at first, but when it came time to go, they backed out," he explains.

Sierra Leone’s government gave Diaz permission to film for a month and a half in 1999, because he was traveling with Action Against Hunger, an international humanitarian organization, he says. The government was interested in the project in so far as it might help them receive more aid from western countries. The film captures the last half of the country’s civil war which began in 1991.

Though in the film a United Kingdom ambassador confirms Sierra Leone is one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to diamonds, gold and iron ore, the country’s people remain the poorest. To survive, the country relies on aid, according to Diaz. So the idea that a western filmmaker would expose the poverty and the fact that Revolutionary United Front (RUF) "rebels" had reportedly been amputating innocent civilians appealed to Sierra Leone government officials.

Diaz and his crewmembers soon decided they had a different story in mind for their film, however, one that the government officials would prefer not to tell. Indeed, since he has made the film, which exposes hypocrisy and corruption in the current U.N.-appointed Sierra Leonean government, he doubts he will ever be able to return to the country.

The unraveling of the narrative behind the propaganda orchestrated by the government began almost immediately, he recalls.

"We had been told, and serious papers like the New York Times had reported, that millions of people in Sierra Leone had been amputated by RUF, which would mean one out of every two people would have been amputated," he says. "But when we arrived, we didn’t see one amputee and we wondered, ‘where are they?’"

Shortly after the film crew’s arrival, a government official led the group to a camp full of amputees, Diaz says, a trip they had likely taken many reporters on before.

"We decided, after our first visit, to go back again on our own, which is when the people at the camp told us that they had been paid to tell their stories by the government," he reports. "When I asked them if a rebel had cut their hands off, they said no."

When an earlier version of "The Empire in Africa" screened at Festival du Cannes last year, the revelation that millions had not been amputated by rebels created the most controversy, he said. "It was a huge scandal," he remembers. "The movie attacks the media, in a way it’s the system of news that’s a problem. Reporters really only have one day to make an assessment. I took six months doing research and six months to edit the film."

Diaz’s chance encounter with Sierra Leonean cameraman Sorius Samura, hired to film the ousted President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, and U.N.-supported army, during the war, confirms his theory that allotting enough time for an investigation matters. Samuras’ graphic footage of terrorized civilians was powerful, and substantiates the commentary from Diaz’s interviews with British and French Ambassadors, President Kabbah, RUF members and military officials.

"You can film people talking about killing and bombing, but there’s a big difference between showing and telling," Diaz explains. "I think it’s important for people to see."

Diaz told Samura it would be dangerous for him to give up his government’s property, but Samura, he says, was willing to take the risk. Samura agreed to let the filmmakers smuggle his footage out of the country, and told Diaz he would soon leave his country for good.

"He told me, ‘I want you to tell the truth. No one else will have access to the images. Promise me you will tell the truth,’" Diaz recalls. "He said he couldn’t sleep at night he was so afraid of what might happen. He said he couldn’t take it anymore."

After screening clips of the movie to audiences, Diaz chose to show only six minutes of Samura’s brutal records.

"I hate gratuitous violence, and these are films showing people shooting like they don’t care," he admits. "So I did a lot of tests with audiences. I was very careful." Telling the story beneath the surface of a country in the midst of an 11-year-long civil war that killed a reported 70,000 people, was quite complicated, Diaz discovered. Many Sierra Leoneans, including the country’s army, in fact, actually agreed with the RUF, fighting to retain the wealth of the country’s resources and create a fair government, according to Diaz.

"The person I interviewed who was the most articulate, and the best informed on international policy was Mike Lamin, a member of the RUF," he says. "The RUF is not against foreign investors — they just don’t want other countries to steal Sierra Leone’s resources."

Diaz says he supports the U.N. as an organization, but he feels that the larger industrialized countries have economic their own economic interests at heart. "We knew about the violence in Sierra Leone," he insists.

"We supported the bombing [of Sierra Leone] for ten years We were defending our economy." At this point, Diaz maintains the solution, "must come from us," the countries and companies that currently benefit from Sierra Leone’s precious resources. And simply giving food and medicine is not enough. According to Diaz, the country’s system must change.

Though he does not believe his film will have a direct impact on governments or countries, he does believe documentaries like "Empire In Africa" have the ability to urge people to act.

"Documentaries create discussion and debate and have the ability to open peoples’ eyes," Diaz says. "I believe little by little, movies can make a difference."


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