SHOOTING FREETOWN – a movie by Kieran Hanson
3. November 16.00 in Auditorium 4, Eilert Sundts hus
Kieran Hanson is a freelance film maker, and currently works at the Granada Center for Visual Anthropology in Manchester as an assistant lecturer. He works in the UK, China and Sierra Leone and holds a MA from the University of Manchester.
This paper was first presented 14/05/12 at the Paulinerkirche, Goettingen, Germany for the GIEFF Symposium ‘Participatory – What Does It Mean?’
Shooting Freetown: Shared anthropology & collaborative media in urban Sierra Leone
This paper is a reflection upon the ethnographic film project ‘Shooting Freetown’, carried out amongst musicians and filmmakers of Sierra Leone’s capital city in the rainy season of 2011. The project’s primary inspirations, the ‘ethnofiction’ films of Jean Rouch, were also shot in coastal West African cities more than 50 years prior. To pick up the mantle of his ‘shared anthropology’ to explore interior creative worlds presented alongside the observed exterior, entails something different in 21 st Century urban West Africa. Media technology is no longer out of reach here, attested by the region’s booming filmindustries.
In Sierra Leone, a small country still recovering from the mass destruction of a decade long war, from scorched earth sprouts green shoots of creativity . The invitation is there for the visiting filmmaker to adopt an open, negotiated methodology at every stage, engaging participants in mutual creation, entering into the existing mediadialogues. Reflexivity, reciprocity and collaboration can push one far beyond observational cinema. Recent technological and economic developments suggest a further levelling of the playingfield, new possibilities for Sierra Leonean images and narratives to compete with those imposed from outside.
A little background to the Shooting Freetown project – the film along with an accompanying paper were completed for the final project for my MA from the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. For this I was required to create a short ethnographic documentary, which I chose to make in Sierra Leone following several months of research and a short scoping trip. The film was shot during two months of fieldwork between May & July, then edited over 3 weeks in September. The collaborative videos were both shot and edited in the field.
Now I will give some context for Sierra Leone, in relation to history and media infrastructure, both of which have a profound bearing on the circumstances of my collaborators. Ill also be referring back to Jean Rouch, as not only was his work undoubtedly the primary inspiration for Shooting Freetown but also remains the work by which all discussions on Shared Anthropology are inevitably judged.
SIERRA LEONE: CONFLICT, RECONSTRUCTION & SELF IMAGES
Freetown (pop. 1.2million) as we know it was established as an independent colony in 1792, founded by the Sierra Leone Company as a home for freed African slaves. Many came from the ‘Black Poor’ of London, some from the colonies of Nova Scotia and Jamaica and others from captured slaving ships, following Britain’s abolition of the trade. These Creole people developed a distinctive and influential cultural legacy which extends to this day, despite the fact they only make up 5% of country’s current population. In 1808, Freetown became a British Crown Colony. During this period it was increasingly known as the ‘Athens of West Africa’, for in an effort to plant the seeds of Western civilisation on the ‘dark continent’, Fourah Bay College, the oldest university in West Africa, was founded in 1827.
Independence finally came in 1961, amidst high hopes of a bright future for the nation.
Between 1991 and 2002 the civil war engulfed the country. The conflict erupted initially along the Liberian border, with Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), sponsored by Charles Taylor, pushing north to seize control of the country’s substantial precious mineral resources. The Sierra Leone Army (SLA), which had been intentionally kept weak through fear of a coup, proved ineffective and resorted to the same terror tactics on civilians as their rebel enemies. The resulting conflict left 50,000 people dead, with the latter stages seeing the capital come under attack twice, obliterating the city’s infrastructure. After years of scarcely successful foreign interventions, from South African mercenaries to Nigerian ECOWAS troops, the British returned to their former colony in Operation Pallister. Beginning as simply a mission to evacuate foreign nationals, it expanded across the country and quickly brought the conflict to a decisive close.
A huge humanitarian crisis was the war’s main legacy. Internal displacement, as people fled from whichever side was attacking them at any given time, flooded the slums of Freetown. The thousands of children, drugged and forced into fighting by ruthless generals, posed a particular dilemma. What followed was an extensive, UN sponsored process of disarmament, rehabilitation, mediation and reintegration. Freetown today is considered to be one of Africa’s safest cities . It is also the seat of a stable, functioning, democraticallyelected national government, albeit one still crippled by the endemic corruption all too common in West Africa.
Towards the end of the colonial period in British West Africa, British Colonial Film Units,
producing educational and propaganda films, were active although being gradually phased
out. Rouch himself referenced these: “Thus in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and East Africa, Africans have been trained to take over. Their work is by no means extraordinary, but – and this is the inestimable contribution of the film unit’s promoters – films are now regarded as an essential medium of mass communication. This means that the situation is particularly favourable for the flowering of a typically African cinematographic art in the very near future” (In Feld, 2003:6667).
Well this certainly became true of Ghana and Nigeria in the video revolution which took
place in the 1990s, however Sierra Leone’s war prevented any such progress taking place in this time. The prolonged destruction and disruption, as with neighbouring Liberia, left Sierra Leone trailing far behind the other West African cinematic powerhouses, . In the early years of peace, NGO’s came to dominate the media landscape, providing some of the only opportunities for musicians and directors to engage in video production, the explicit agendas of the organisations a prerequisite for any commissions or equipment loans.
Thus the primary representations of Sierra Leone came from the global media, whose
cameras were infatuated with amputees, child soldiers and other products of the conflict and remain so to this day. Sierra Leone has fallen victim to a unanimously bleak media
representations and I was adamant I wanted to find what was in fact being produced by
Sierra Leoneans in 2011, but also to play a part in expanding, enriching and diversify the
representations of this country somehow. This is where Rouch came into play.
RELATING TO ROUCH
Around the same time as Sierra Leone and many of her neighbouring countries were gaining their independence from colonial powers, the ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch was active in this region, following the pattern of migration from his primary country of research, Niger, to the Guinea Coast and the bustling port cities in present day Ghana and Ivory Coast. My primary inspiration for Shooting Freetown came from these migration films he made: Les Maitres Fous , Moi, un Noir and Jaguar . To Rouch, these migrant workers were “heroes of the modern world”, drawn to the vibrant coastal cities, not only surviving but using their inventiveness and imaginations to live experientially rich lives. These films depicted rurally born Africans as tied into not just urban, but global networks, revealing migrants not as passive victims of the process but rather as active participants. “They have come to live the great adventure of African cities” narrates Rouch in the opening to Les Maitres Fous, “Here, traffic never stops. Noise never stops”.
The latter two works are also sometimes referred to as his ‘ethnofiction’ films, where the
subjects are encouraged to construct a reality and actively perform the roles of characters
within them. As MacDougall puts it, these films “make available to the audience an interior world that interacts with the surface reality that the filmmaker documents with the camera” (1998:193). In the making of Jaguar , Rouch himself declared “
We had entered into a realm that was not reality, but rather the pronunciation of reality, one that revealed that reality” (Henley, 2009:81). In order to achieve this, Rouch had worked with subjects who he had known personally for several years, composing the films from sequences shot over a number of months. Although I had neither the luxury of such familiarity or time, from the outset I aimed to learn from Rouch’s methods and create a piece that is indebted to these films, inspired by his approach.
Rouch’s ‘shared anthropology’ methodology was an approach which was adopted in relationto his subjects, as Feld describes “ rather than analysing behaviours as if they were
unaffected by the presence of the anthropologist, Rouch… directly confronted how people
are changed and modified by his presence” (2003:19). Rouch’s Shared anthropology was
based on feedback screenings with his participants, intended to force the author to openly
reflect upon and mediate his or her position. Rouch also trained African filmmakers, some of whom went on to some success. However, these “shared” films very much remained Jean Rouch productions, bearing all of his hallmarks. As Henley points out, we’re forced to askwho really benefits from this sharing “shared anthropology sounds very grand, but what did it actually do for the subjects?” (2009:322). Rouch’s films were also often accused of feeling paternalist and colonialist, portraying Africans in childlike way, carefree and indifferent to the harsh political landscape of the time (2009:331). As with Rouch’s era, notions of shared anthropology, participation and collaboration in documentary remain deeply problematic to this day. What would I be taking on in embarking on a project of this nature? Would I be able to apply these methods to 21 st century West Africa?
I was drawn to a quote from David MacDougall: “One sometimes feels that Jean Rouch has
tried to make the kind of films about West Africa that West Africans might have made had
they had the means” (1976, 149). In present day Sierra Leone, despite the difficulties,
people are now actively engaging with media technologies in selfexpression
and forging creative careers. Rouch presented us with fast moving cosmopolitan cities with ambitious and imaginative individuals – they are still there, but now they are amplified by the new possibilities of digital media creation. I departed for Freetown still grappling with how I was going engage with this new environment.
For the duration of my fieldwork I stayed with John Kamara, a Sierra Leonean friend of a
friend who lives in Kissy, a densely populated town just off the eastern edge of the Freetown. Within the first 24 hours of arriving, during a walk around the local area I stumbled across the radiant red and green paint of the Visual Arts Studio, which stood out like a beacon on the Kissy Bypass Road. It was a petrol station, satellite dish shop, phone credit dealer and, crucially, an independent film production house. I spoke to KP, an editor and cameraman and eventually I was visiting Visual Arts Studio on a daily basis. It was this serendipitous encounter that led me to the conclusion that my film should follow those involved in the creative industries in Sierra Leone, to see how an independent filmhouse
like VAS operates and what issues they face.
The second protagonist in the film was Paps, a musician and rapper, who I became aware of about a month before leaving for Freetown, due to an email that was circulated promoting his new single on iTunes. It turned out Paps was, like many Sierra Leoneans, scraping by on less than a dollar a day, but had made contacts in the UK who were helping promote him abroad. I was struck by his enthusiasm and ease in front of the camera, and how despite so many setbacks in his life, his unwavering passion to become a star. Paps lived on the other end of the city from Kissy, but I would still meet with him a few times a week, arranging times to shoot and discussing with him what we would film.
Next was Arthur Pratt, director of WeOwnTV, (Krio for ‘Our TV’) an organisation that helps
disenfranchised youth and young adults in Freetown, by offering places on month long
media training courses, with a community based curriculum and focus on storytelling.
Although cofounded by American filmmakers, who still assist with financial and technical
matters, the media centre and projects are entirely overseen by Arthur and other Sierra
DEVELOPMENT OF COLLABORATIVE METHODOLOGY
A turning point came when I was supposed to be shooting a rehearsal with another member of WeOwnTV, but instead at the last minute, decided to go with Arthur and the others to King Jimmy Market, where they were shooting a scene from a fiction film They Resisted , concerning Sierra Leone’s slave trading past. The scene was a dream sequence, with a present day woman confronted with the ghosts of the past (A further ethnographic detail not mentioned in the film is that King Jimmy is in fact the place that the British slave trade in West Africa was centred, the tunnels Arthur is seen shooting in are the same ones through which the slaves were led to the ships).
Whereas Rouch was bringing cutting edge technology into the lives of his collaborators, in
the form of his portable film camera, this was certainly not the case for me in Freetown. In
this scene, Arthur and I are shooting side by side, using the exact same camera model
(Sony HVRV1E), at one point shooting the same drama subject in a moment of visual unity,
blurring lines of the scientific ‘documenting’ camera and the artistic ‘creating’ camera – this would set the tone for what was to follow.
As for the collaborative projects, the music videos for Banana Dem Want and Happy
Birthday , I did not pursue videos initially and had not at all planned for these to happen prior to my fieldwork, they were born from discussions with Paps and KP. Both approached me individually and described videos they wanted to make for preexisting songs they had
written, after which I offered to assist them in any way that I could. Paps was operating on
almost no resources whatsoever, but through the contacts he has maintained within the city and abroad, all he really required was access to the money he had made from his music
online and technical equipment and assistance. The rest was achieved through his own
resourcefulness, creativity and no small amount of hard work. KP had everything necessary to make Happy Birthday himself, but what he didn’t have was the immediate time and motivation. He spends most of his time doing small shooting and editing jobs to bring money in for his family, so to have someone else share the technical and production burden was all he needed.
In discussion with Paps and KP, I decided to frame these videos as reflections of the
expressive lives of my collaborators, as well as attempting to build them into the narrative of the other media project we were engaged in the documentary. This resulting juxtaposition, although still an integration of fiction and documentary, delving into imaginations and aspirations of the collaborators, is doing something rather different from the Rouchian techniques that inspired it. Whereas Rouch favoured surrealist dream sequences in his ethnofictions, which melded more fluidly into the action, I took a less auteuresque approach instead wanting to draw attention to actual creation of these projects, hence my use of title cards, stating the roles of Director/Writer and Cameraman/Editor.
The next clip is a scene with KP. After he had discussed with me his idea for the video for
Happy Birthday, the song he wrote for his daughter to perform relating to the story of the
difficult circumstances surrounding her birth at the end of the war, I asked if we could go and film at his house, which he and his family were very happy about. However, it was not long before a camera was pointed back in my direction! The video we produced is entirely based on his remembrance of that time, with the roles of himself and his wife played by two actors, both friends of his. The main fictitious element was our decision to change the year of setting from 2001 to 1999, as although his living conditions were similar, 1999 is year that has a powerful resonance for those in Freetown, the year of the second, cataclysmic Rebel invasion of the city. The second part sees his daughter’s 10 th birthday as the setting for the song (which happened almost exactly as depicted, she did in fact perform this song at her party just one month prior).
My equipment and my ability to shoot and edit, as well as the time I had available, proved to be valuable resources to offer to my films’ participants. It is important to note that these videos, in some form, would have inevitably have been made at some point without my collaboration. Within these projects I maintained the same role – camera operator and editor, with some directorial advice as is was needed. Although I was happy to carry out these roles, partly due to a degree of aesthetic and technical continuity in the film, it was also at the insistence of my collaborators that I do so. The idea was for me to be directed by them, to shoot the images they wanted and to assist them into bringing to life the projects. It was agreed we would create these pieces with a Sierra Leonean audience in mind, then I could edit them into my film later. The act of joined creativity itself was also a great process in bonding with both Paps and KP and solidified the reciprocal nature of the fieldwork I was carrying out.
As time went on and I was constantly shifting and being shifted in my position as filmmaker, it became apparent to me that, through my camera, I was in fact attempting to engage in a preexisting media dialogue that was happening in Sierra Leone. The voices were diverse: media representations of the foreign press, American, West African and Bollywood movies, MTV videos, NGO funded education films and handcam
shot SierraLeonean documentaries to name a few. In Shooting Freetown I tried to show as many instances as possible of my participants and their colleagues shooting in work and in leisure, something I encountered constantly in my fieldwork. It often felt like I had a camera on me as much as I had mine set on others.
Shooting Freetown is itself the product of dialogue between my own ethnographic
documentary endeavours, the music and drama expressions of my collaborators and the
presented surface reality of my participants lives. My challenge was uniting these elements through negotiation at every stage of shooting, although the restrictions of my MA meant the final film was edited only by myself.
The collaborative nature of creating media became the core of my focus rather than just the means of my methodology, engaging in a cycle of reciprocity and creativity, with the camera itself becoming an ever present tool of interaction and exchange. The process of creation became an act of bonding and mutual understanding, crucial in fieldwork of this nature and in moving towards a more egalitarian attitude to filmmaking.
It was a learning process for both me and the collaborators – myself as filmmaker in his early stages, it challenged me to push beyond my observational documentary training, imparting my learning to those without the benefit of filmschool education, as and when they desired it. The experience of filming, being filmed by and filming alongside my collaborators draws the viewer into a reflexive engagement with the film they are watching, engaging them with the very moment and process of creation they are witnessing.
This had particular resonance with my subjects as I was dealing with people who were
engaging with the media technologies I was using, the camera itself was something they
wanted to utilise to express themselves with and further their creative careers. If anything, I became as much a part of their own creative endeavour as they did mine. In the act of filming, I wasn’t just a Westerner arriving and capturing the lives of the Other, I became another voice in a media dialogue that is continuing.
The big question that continually hangs over Shared Anthropology is what
happens next? What happens to the cooperative relationship once the filmmakeranthropologist leaves the field with the ‘prize’ of his or her film, a product created by a greater or lesser degree by the effort of others? Just whose film is it? These are issues that ought to be well thought out in advance and discussed and negotiated whilst in the field. In relation to Shooting Freetown, the final film as a whole, as I see it, remains primarily a product of my editorial authorship. This was always going to be the case and there was never any question of this, due to the nature of the assignment. However, the film also remains quite freely in the hands of my collaborators to use for their own enjoyment, selfpromotion and educational requirements.
Some of the footage shot during the clip I showed of the WeOwnTV shoot is now being used in a videopitch for funding of Arthur’s next film project. The collaborative videos remain fully under the control of Paps and KP have been broadcast and screened as promotional tools for their recent tours and albums.
Another factor which is worth addressing is the online presence I have created to promote
Shooting Freetown. Through this, Shooting Freetown is engaged in media debates about
challenging hegemonic representations of Africa, a huge issue on the blog and
Twittersphere. The gradual arrival of high speed internet on the continent is dramatically
amplifying previously unheard voices. Africans, including Sierra Leoneans, are increasingly engaging with and challenging outside representations of themselves, as seen recently in the backlash to the Kony2012 phenomenon. The potential for the sharing of locally produced media online is also yet to be fully realised in Sierra Leone and will no doubt have a considerable bearing on the lives of those in Freetown and beyond.
The changing urban scapes of West Africa (and indeed, the wider world) are transforming
through a proliferation of audiovisual technology, growing international connectivity and
increasing media awareness. In these circumstances, the filmmaker anthropologist and his or her collaborators are well served by a mutual adapting, repositioning and engagement on equal terms. The horizons for sharing that begin in the field are expanding far beyond the prior limitations.