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Liberia – shock or insight?

I lost an hour this morning to a documentary on Liberia, which I stumbled onto through Twitter. VBS – the television and video arm of Vice Magazine (wikipedia article, official site) – has produced critically acclaimed content including “Heavy Metal in Baghdad“, a documentary about Iraqi metal band, Acrassicauda. This month, they’re releasing an eight-part series titled “The Vice Guide to Liberia”. The first seven sections are available online – the next will be released within 48 hours. I’ve just watched the first seven episodes, and I’m not at all sure what I think.

There’s no shortage of earnest, thoughtful, responsible documentaries about Liberia’s civil war and its aftermath. A partial list might include “Liberia: America’s Stepchild“, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell“, “Iron Ladies of Liberia“, “Liberia: An Uncivil War” and “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here“. Vice’s production – narrated by magazine/production company/media empire co-founder Shane Smith – is an abrupt break from the careful interviews and swelling music that accompany most of these films. Then again, what would you expect from a group “which reliably regards the world with unbridled ridicule”? (Jon Fine, in Businessweek).

Shane Smith and Vice are in Liberia expanding on an earlier Vice Magazine story – “Gen. Butt Naked Versus The Tupac Army” – which considered the civil war from the perspective of fashion, reporting the widely reported but still titillating “news” that Liberian rebels fought dressed in hiphop t-shirts, women’s wedding dresses or naked. So it’s not a big surprise that Vice’s story is designed to shock at least as much as it is to enlighten. The third of eight episodes looks at UN and international relief efforts in the country, and dismisses their failure by focusing on a neighborhood with no plumbing where residents shit on the beach. (This may be shocking to Canadian hipster filmmakers, but isn’t especially shocking to anyone who’s spent time in West Africa or any very poor parts of the world.) As the end of that episode description puts it, “From there it’s off the visit a heroin den, where we watch a twelve year-old smoke heroin and describes raping a woman at gunpoint. It gets worse.” Much of the Vice travel aesthetic seems to come from Canadian journalist Robert Young Pelton, whose “The World’s Most Dangerous Places” isn’t the world’s most helpful travel guide, but is one of the most entertaining.

Much of what seems to scare Smith and his crew – situations they inevitably describe as having “a heavy vibe” – are cases where they (a bunch of white guys with expensive camera equipment) are surrounded by poor Africans who’d like some money. It’s hard not to notice that most of the uncomfortable situations are ones they’ve chosen to put themselves in – “Hey, let’s go film inside a brothel in a tough part of town in the middle of the night – what could go wrong?” On the other hand, some of the footage that comes from these poor decisions is evocative and worth watching. Their experience trying to get a former rebel general released from a police station so they can interview him – and, predictably, getting shook down for a bribe – gave me warm feelings of familiarity as I remembered my worst experiences with law enforcement in difficult parts of the world.

Charles Taylor Jr. with Vice magazine reporter in Monrovia, Liberia

So, is this a straightforward case of overprivleged westerners making fun of the poor, a contemptible piece of exoticism? I think the filmmakers see themselves doing something different: showcasing the strange culture collisions that occur in a world as interconnected as ours. This interview with aspiring hiphop star Charles Taylor Jr. – son of the notorious warlord and former President – captures that aesthetic neatly… as does the photo of Taylor Jr. sporting a Boston Celtics throwback jersey (what does Larry Bird think about this photo?)

The cultural collision at the heart of the Vice documentary is the story of Joshua Blahyi, the aforementioned General Butt Naked. Blahyi developed a reputation as a particularly savage rebel leader loyal to coup-installed President Samuel Doe. He and his men fought naked, except for their guns and Chuck Taylor sneakers, believing the rituals performed before battle protected them from enemy gunfire. Blahyi says the rituals involved slaughtering children, eating their hearts and drinking their blood. In testimony before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he estimates that he and his men killed at least 20,000 people during the civil war.

The TRC accepted Blahyi’s testimony, and he is a free man in Liberia – a circumstance that some point to as evidence that Liberia needs a war crimes tribunal, not just a TRC. In recent years, Blahyi has converted to Christianity and now prefers to be known as “Evangelist Blahyi”. He leads the Vice filmmakers to the abandoned hotel that served as rebel headquarters, through a malarial swamp to the mission where he shelters former combatants, to a graveyard where he talks about exhuming bodies and sleeping in empty graves. In this last scene, he and Smith are dressed in matching white suits, looking like televangelists. They discuss cannibalism in the graveyard, then proceed to a church where Blahyi takes the stage and preaches about his conversion.

Are we to take Blahyi’s conversion seriously? The pairing of the evangelist and the skeptical filmmaker in matching suits suggests that the Vice crew is having fun with the scene, looking for a laugh. But they’ve put their finger on some of the most difficult questions that face contemporary Liberia. How does a nation recover from a brutal past – does it embrace those who’ve asked for forgiveness, or turn them away? Is Blahyi genuinely repentant about his ghastly past, or has he simply adopted an identity likely to allow him to survive (and thrive, evidently) in contemporary Liberia?

It’s worth watching Vice’s time with Blahyi (in episodes 6 & 7) and then the promo for Gerald K. Barclay’s film, which also centers on Blahyi. Barclay features chilling footage of Blahyi talking about his past crime, overlaid with pieces of Peter Gabriel’s score for the film “Passion”. It embraces the conventions of the American socially-progressive documentary film: an outline of the challenges facing a group of disadvantaged people, a set of stories that illustrate those challenges, a moving story behind the making of the film. Barclay is a Liberian exile, and he returned to West Africa – first to Budumburum refugee camp outside Accra, Ghana and then to Liberia – to shoot “Liberia: The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.”

I’m much more comfortable with the motivations behind Barclay’s work than with the newer piece from Vice. But I have no doubt that Vice’s piece – even if distributed solely online – will reach a wider audience. Smith and his crew aren’t shooting for an audience predisposed to care about Liberia – they’re making a film for an audience that’s looking for excitement, shock and the unexpected, qualities their story has in spades. This isn’t a usual documentary audience, as tweets about the series indicate:

Picture 1

Something about the VBS documentaries – the high quality of production, the unfamiliarity of the subject matter, the narrative of “adventure” rather than history – is generating a lot of buzz. As much as I want to object to the VBS video, which sensationalizes, uses historical footage with little context, and is a classic example of parachute psuedo-journalism, I have to admit that it’s a compelling piece of storytelling and that it caught my attention. Rather than critiquing it, I’m interested in picking it apart and starting to understand what makes it work. What could documentary filmmakers learn from VBS to generate a wider audience for their work? Is it possible to broaden your audience without playing to their desire to see something shocking and outrageous? Is it acceptable to use shock and outrage to get people to pay attention to parts of the world they know and care little about?

I’m fascinated by VBS because they appear to be getting people to pay attention to a part of the world that receives very little media attention. At minimum, Vice’s documentary demonstrates that there are stories to tell about Africa’s history that can reach an audience beyond the NPR/PBS community. The open question for me is whether the story they tell is a constructive one, one that can help Liberia move forwards, or merely a shocking, exploitative one. And, as I said 1500 words back, I’m not sure what I think – what do you think?

18 thoughts on “Liberia – shock or insight?”

  1. I haven’t watched the docs you link to yet, but it seems like there’s a formula that can both reach audiences that wouldn’t be seeking out info about these corners of the world but that is also respectful of local culture. It’s called No Reservations w/ Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain definitely takes an adventurer’s tack to his travels, but he also shows a lot of respect and authentic curiosity for the local cultures while fully acknowledging his ignorance and showing humility in the face of it. I’ve learned A LOT about places I now wish to travel to by watching his show, and it’s supremely entertaining at the same time.

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  3. Idiotic, sensationalizing, simplistic, and in many places factually incorrect. And I say this having met one of the guys who worked on it. (Also, it drives me crazy that they portray Miles as having “had malaria more times than he’s had hot dinners.” Both times that I saw him we were drinking ice cold beers – thanks to a costly generator – at an expat’s very comfortable place with a perfect view of Monrovia’s coastline.)

    To say that this documentary is representative of Liberia is like saying that a documentary on Las Vegas is representative of the United States. I find it so frustrating that sensationalized nonsense like this gets so much attention when really incredible storytelling by Liberians barely gets picked up at all. To suggest that thoughtful documentary filmmakers should learn from thoughtless jackasses like these guys is, in my opinion, wrongheaded. The more important question in my opinion is how to get more people/viewers interested in understanding another country and culture rather than just looking at clips of brothels and cannibalism.

    This is why I disagree with the whole ‘ninja gap‘ idea. Nothing constructive is going to come out of this documentary. All it does is further fetishize the same scenes and stories that are always associated with Liberia.

    For anyone wanting to learn more about Liberia, I highly recommend Saki Golafale’s account of his trip to Freetown, thoughts on marriage from the recently married Nat Bayjay, and pretty good coverage of the forced resignation of Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, Dr. Laurence Bropleh.

    And to better understand the context around the gory images that are shown without any context in the Vice videos, Stephen Ellis’ The Mask of Anarchy is highly recommended.

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  5. Well as humans we (and as far as I know that’s a pretty much universal ‘we’) are programmed to discard data that disagrees with what we believe. And trust is an issue too. As a foreigner, what I say carries less weight in the word of mouth economy.

    So I’m thinking that someone who doesn’t know much about a certain country needs to go on a journey to get to a point where they start to understand how that country works and what’s going on there.

    First, they need to become conscious that the place exists. Then they need to hear about it in a context that they can relate to. Then they can begin to process the ‘unedited’ version. An example would be: hearing about Liberia from your fellow-citizen/local media outlet – talking to someone from Liberia who has lived in your country for a while – talking to someone who has never left Liberia.

    Information from too far along the chain will likely be discarded. But say you’re at the stage where you’re aware of Liberia, you’ve heard some stereotypical stories, and someone you trust and can relate to starts talking about Liberia and slips in a bit more information in addition to the usual stereotypes. Does that move you along enough so that next time you see more nutritious information on Liberia you pay attention?

    In that case a way to evaluate stuff like this could be to ask whether it helps anyone who watches it to get further along that journey. If it’s inaccurate then it almost certainly doesn’t because it just increases the inevitability of does not compute moments later. If it’s merely one-dimensional I would argue there’s something to work on.

    Not everyone is going to sit down and read books about Liberia, and I do agree that there must be something to learn about packaging information in new and different ways to make it relevant to more people. Although then you have the problem that what’s new and exciting in one country may be old and tired in another country, and technologically impossible in another.

    By the way, did you know that chocolate was the broccoli of its time?


    “Quakers and other non-conformists at the time were concerned about levels of alcohol misuse in the population at large, they were part of the temperance movement.

    “Cocoa was a way of providing cheap and available drink. It was healthy because you had to boil the water to make it when they didn’t have good water supplies.”

  6. Here’s a letter I just sent to Vice:

    Shane Smith
    Vice Magazine

    Mr. Smith and Team,

    In four and a half years of watching Liberia coverage in the media, I can safely say that the Vice series is the most irresponsible, exploitative, morally bankrupt, stereotype-confirming, thinly-researched, dishonest—even harmful—parachute hack-job I’ve seen. And sadly, that may have been your point.

    I know I shouldn’t expect perfection from a narrator that admits up-front that his aim is to go find some “hardcore shit”. But there is a problem when foreigners enter a humanitarian context without the slightest care for the dignity and well-being of the people they encounter.

    Yeah, the story uses all the same tired old harmful tropes about Africa (hell, there’s even a shout-out to Heart of Darkness), but you guys take it several steps further, exploiting people’s misery for the sole purpose of providing a momentary shock thrill to a far-away audience.

    Contempt for Liberia

    • Discussing wartime conditions, the excesses of wartime, as if they were still the norm. In the case of sexual violence, ok, it’s still rampant. But flesh eating? Murder, mayhem, etc? You’re purposely trying to make Liberia seem worse than it is, just so that you can have a story.

    • Conducting conspicuous public interviews, you draw positive attention to former warlords (many of them are now local criminal bosses), right in their communities, thereby increasing their power.

    • Stating, “A large segment of the population consumes human flesh.” Don’t get me wrong; there’s real value in exposing the fact that human flesh is used, by a tiny minority, in rites around West Africa. But making this particular statement, in this way, is simply despicable.

    • Springing a warlord-turned-local-rainmaker out of jail, by use of bribery. Way to set an example, guy! Had you simply gone away, they would have let him out. As you explain, you were the whole reason he was in jail in the first place! And what was the point of that interview, anyway? To show your friends back home how hardcore you are, hanging out with warlords?

    Contempt for humanity

    • Generally mocking people for being poor, and squeezing your thrills out of the behavior of desperately poor people. This is done willfully and repeatedly and is basically the theme of the piece.

    • Going against basic common sense, basic journalistic standards, and even the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by interviewing and photographing (what certainly appears to be) a child smoking heroin and cocaine AND talking about raping someone. Just for future reference, it doesn’t matter even if the kid said he wanted to be interviewed. It’s impossible to get informed consent from a minor. That’s why we have laws on statutory rape, for example.

    • Interviewing prostitutes under the flimsy veneer of trying to expose the pedophilia of “UN staff”, but actually doing no such thing. (See Contempt for Journalism, below) Instead you make a group of already extremely vulnerable, traumatized women vulnerable to re-traumatization, calling major attention to them in a community where stigma can be life-threatening, and basically de-humanizing them completely. Let’s be honest; your real motive here was to see what some of the most desperate, damaged people in the world look like, how they act when you shine a light on them. They’re like animals in a zoo to you. Be contemptuous of humanity, if you want. But at least do it to people who can defend themselves.

    Contempt for journalism

    The only excuse you could possibly come up with for what you’ve done might be to claim that it wasn’t meant to be journalism, that it’s entertainment. But you do pretend to be muck-raking in several instances. You are practicing journalism, only very, very poorly.

    • In one of the most dishonest edits I’ve ever seen, you ask if UN staff are having sex with children, at which point we get a quick cut to an adult saying “Yeah, they beat me, etc.”, offering no information about the UN or pedophilia. There would be real value in exposing sexual abuse and exploitation among UN personnel. But this is not how it’s done. You have proven nothing except that you have no good tape, and that you have no respect for journalism or your audience.

    • Jumping between footage of today, and footage of the war, without making the distinction. The uninitiated viewer would have every reason to think that the team had collected the dead children footage, the militia training footage themselves in 2009.

    • Lying to sources on camera. Classy.

    • Asking the same old parachute hack question, “What is the government and the UN doing?” As usual, this question is never answered; rather it’s implied, even stated by a source, that they’re doing nothing. I’ll be the first to criticize the UN, and I’ll admit that progress has been frustratingly slow. But you don’t even pretend to care about figuring out what is really happening.

    Just plain stupidity

    • Breathlessly stating, “…the rebels [as if there were one single group of rebels!] could take Monrovia in 2 hours…and the UN is scheduled to leave next year!” Note: “The UN”, by which I guess you mean the peacekeeping mission, is scheduled to leave every year. All peacekeeping missions are renewed on an annual basis. UNMIL’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

    • Asking, “There are lots of former combatants around, doing nothing. Do you think that’s a problem?” Helluva question, guy. The government and the international community should have thought of that! Seriously, there are hundreds of UN and NGO youth employment and development programs and projects ongoing all over the country, and many more are planned, in partnership with the government.

    Total hypocrisy

    • For all their faults, I’ll tell you one thing the government and the UN are doing right. They’re not producing media for Western consumption that dissuades people taking a positive interest in, visiting, or investing in Liberia’s future. You’re worried about the kids standing around with nothing to do? Tell you what, bro—how about not making movies that will dissuade foreign investment, a crucial ingredient in job creation. How about not making movies that will (you can bet on it) be seen by Liberians living abroad (AKA the valuable human capital that’s so badly needed back) giving them yet another reason to stay in Minneapolis or Staten Island forever.

    An utterly shameful performance.

  7. Total trash and an insult to Liberians who are working to re-build their country. However, what do you expect from people associated with that jackass Pelton.

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  9. Interesting how small the world is. Yes the Vice folks are unabashed fans of my book and yes my book was the launching pad for General Butt Naked which inspired the film but I don’t credit for the tone or style in which Liberia is being covered.

    I spent some time with LURD while they were fighting Taylor and that trip turned into one of more gruesome shows in the series The World’s Most Dangerous Places. The two people I had with me returned to do “Liberia An Uncivil War” and my producer Jonathan returned to yet another doco about Liberia. So maybe I am the precursor for much of this coverage but I think if you see my one hour special you will see that whether its a 5 year old child soldier or terrified villager they are treated with respect and on their terms.

    I hope more people pay attention to Liberia and we don’t let them slip back into the darkness!



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  11. The Documentary Bling about Sierra Leone’s war, hip hop, and the diamond trade I think is an example of a project with production value that got aired on MTV or VH1, garnered some attention, and was respectful of its subjects.

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