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:
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?