Dramatic atrocities, extreme human suffering and the cruelties and psychosis of dirt poverty and slum life make for memorable documentaries, and the Sierra Leone civil war (1991-2002) combined all of these in excess. Man Den Nor Glady’O, a 57-minute documentary produced by charmingly named Rice N Peas, an alternative London-based production company, is the latest to relentlessly focus on these vulgar aspects of the country’s recent and current condition. The film maker, who is both narrator and director, is one Ishmail Blagrove, a Caribbean British (or Black British) journalist who previously worked for the BBC.
Blagrove brings a passionate and affectionate tone to the subject, and he is most convincing when he is portraying the dereliction and disenchantment of young people in their depressed environments. The young people that Blagrove meets – some in their slums, some secondary school students scrounging in someone else’s veranda to study because the house happens to be the only one in the area providing electricity (Blagrove was staying there, so he had a generator on all night), some in the diamond mines in Tongo, eastern Sierra Leone – are articulate, oddly high-spirited, and are a striking reminder, if this were necessary, of the terrible disillusionment which continues to make Sierra Leone a highly fragile state. Blagrove is at his best here: he allows them to speak, some even debating in a refreshingly informed way the democratic choices that the country faces. The film’s title, Man Den Nor Glady’O (a Krio word meaning The People Are Not Happy) is fully realized here: this part of the film should be used as an instruction manual for the politicians and hustlers who have contributed to making the country such a blighted place.
Blagrove, however, has a bigger ambition. Here is what he says about the making of the film in a promotional interview published on the website of his production company (www.ricenpeas.com): “Man Den Nor Glady’O is a â€¦ documentary about how the United Nations and other international supporting bodies dealt with the consequences of war in Sierra Leone but failed to deal with the causes. So although the guns are presently silent, the issues of poverty, corruption and bad governance are still endemic and may yet again be the igniting factors of a future conflict,” he said. Blagrove had wanted to do a story like this when he shot Blood Diamonds for the BBC in 2001, but the BBC “placed restrictions” on him because the corporation wanted a story about diamonds. The BBC wanted to do a simple, focused story. Blagrove, on the hand, wanted to do a story about “why the war started.” His intention here is to “make the story I wished to make originally and in the process correct some of the fallacies that have permeated the public’s perceptions about Sierra Leone: namely that this was a war fought for control of diamonds.” In his view, the war “began as a campaign to eradicate the corrupt and inept practices that had forced this mineral rich nation to the bottom of the international development chart. It later mutated into an anarchic free-for-all, governed by complex variables of factional and tribal loyalties.”
On the evidence of Man Den Nor Glady’O, the BBC was right, and Blagrove, in spite of his necromantic appeal, seriously confuses and conflates – not to say simplifies – the issues he takes on.
The film focuses almost entirely (as a cause of the war) on corruption – a very important and vexed issue, but also a catch-all trope that therefore explains nothing. Indeed the key evidence that Blagrove gives for his quite seductive assertion that the war “began as a campaign to eradicate” corruption is an interview with Fatou Sankoh, one of the wives of the late Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader Foday Saybanah Sankoh! Mrs. Sankoh is Senegalese, and she first came to Sierra Leone after the 1999 Lome Accord that, at least formally, ended the war. Why her view, or indeed the view, of any of those associated with the rebel group can be taken at face value is not made clear. The fact is that the RUF started its war in 1991, and only published Footpaths to Democracy – which must be considered, in the absence of any other document, its manifesto – in 1995, well after thousands of people had already been killed. It was written by two outsiders (Ghanaians), and in its denunciation of corruption and poor governance (not to mention the indulging in environmental romance) is certainly an elaborate ex post facto rationalization.
There is no hint of the role of outsiders – the likes of Charles Taylor, the arms dealers and diamond smugglers – in the conflict. This, of course, is a core part of Blagrove’s aim: to show that the war was a purely internal affair, fought by Sierra Leoneans who were disenchanted with a corrupt state. I think that there is merit in showing that bad governance contributed in making the war possible, and to focus on its manifestations. But corruption is only one of the manifestations of bad governance, and in the view of this reviewer not the most important. The focus on corruption is too pat, too easy, and it certainly is more caricature than serious analysis. In any case, the film fails to show how corruption works or what form it takes: all it relies on is interviews with a few young people (whose views should be obvious), a few politicians (actually only Vice President Solomon Berewa and opposition politician Charles Margai), and the activist Zainab Bangura. The BBC’s 1990 Trade Slaves, which shows how local politicians connive with foreign mining companies to rip off Sierra Leone, is far more illuminating in this respect.
I have already hinted at Blagrove’s skewed methodology. His idea of illumination – showing that corruption is really the core problem in Sierra Leone – is to relentlessly focus on deprived communities in Sierra Leone (his favourite is Kroo Bay, the worst slum in Sierra Leone, which however contains probably less than 10,000 people: Abidjan’s slum, not to mention the far more horrible slum in Nairobi, has more than one million), and to interview its inhabitants about the state of the country, which he then contrasts with the more optimistic views of Berewa. Berewa’s views are then contrasted with Margai’s or Bangura’s, as though all of these should be given equal weight. On the question of corruption, Berewa notes, deliberately and somewhat animatedly (as though relishing the self-parody) that the government’s commitment to rooting out corruption can be seen in the setting up of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC); to which Zainab Bangura responds, a few minutes later, that the ACC was in fact set up as a result of pressure from external donors, and that in any case it is ineffective. Margai, for his part, repeats his formulaic talk about poor leadership and his desire to provide a better one: in the background are his supporters chanting about the braces wearing lawyer as “Our Mandela.”
When a student states that his house had electricity “last night”, and is told by his comrades that that’s because he lives in Aberdeen “where the politicians live”, Blagrove does not show us Aberdeen (or the more prosperous Hill Station or Juba): in fact he does not show any prosperous area of Sierra Leone. This clearly robs his viewers of context: anyone watching this film would be forgiven to conclude that Sierra Leone is one sprawling slum. How can anyone make sense of the corruption the film so hysterically talks about?
At the end of the film – shown at Tricycle in Kilburn, London, on 11 August – Blagrove exhorts viewers to contribute to a fund he has set up to support a few people who appear in the film, the students and slum dwellers shown. Then we know what the film is for: a sop to our finer instincts, a call for charity. So the problem of bad governance, after all, can be solved by pumping a bit of money into the slums of Sierra Leoneâ€¦The idea of charity in its present form developed in Victorian Britain as a result of the well-held fear of the poor by aristocratic Britain. But can it really be a substitute for fundamental programmes of social reforms? The Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht exhibited some cruelty when he sneered at the idea of “a bed for the night” (his rejection of charity), and the (now) neo-conservative French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy may have gone too far when he dismissed charity as a form of “neurosis” and an abdication of politics. But one feels that these positions are more to the point when one places them side by side with Blagrove’sâ€¦
Man Den Nor Glady’O makes important commentary of a somewhat unintentional nature: one is left perplexed why a government, any government, seem so incapable, or unwilling, to provide reliable electricity and running water for, at the very least, its capital. This speaks more of incompetence and neglect than corruption. But of course it is corruption of a different, more visceral, natureâ€¦