- The Empire in Africa
The problem of documenting a horror on the magnitude of Sierra Leone’s civil war is that the words of book-length studies lack the ability of images to arrest us, to make the unimaginable concrete and visceral, but a feature-length film does not have the necessary scope to sufficiently enumerate and explicate the complexities of the event. For this reason, the strengths of Philippe Diaz’s The Empire in Africa (2006) are its recurrent montages of shots that force us to see and hear the stories of the victims of a humanitarian catastrophe that, reprehensibly, went ignored far too long by the mainstream Western media. After the opening credits, the film moves back and forth between short montage sequences of these haunting shots of the victims of the war and interview footage that is cut together to trace the origins and progression of the conflict.
The film quickly loses steam, however, as it drifts from showing us the quotidian struggles of average civilians and war victims, in favor of presenting a cursory and jumbled chronology of the war patched together with interviews from a variety of ex- RUF (Revolutionary United Front) soldiers, ex-SLA (Sierra Leone Army) soldiers, ex-civilian militiamen (kamajors), current Sierra Leonean government officials, foreign NGO workers, and United States and European government representatives. As the narrative becomes more convoluted, the film increasingly relies on Richie Havens’s ostensibly objective voiceover narration not only to clarify the chronology but to tell us how we should feel about the various actors and events of the conflict.
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Nonetheless, the fact that the film requires so many interviews from people on various sides of the war to patch its chronology together is less a testament to the film’s neutrality than it is to the war’s extremely complex nature. One of the war’s elements hardest for us to come to terms with in its aftermath is the lack of two distinct sides, let alone “good” and “bad.” Collusion between the SLA and the RUF has been well [End Page 71] documented, as have atrocities on the part of the SLA, the RUF, the kamajors, and the Nigerian ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States’ Monitoring Group) “peacekeeping” force. Harder still for us to admit is the extent to which the various war-time governments ( Joseph Saidu Momoh’s All People’s Congress, Valentine Strasser’s National Provisional Ruling Council, Johnny Paul Koroma’s Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, and Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s Sierra Leone’s People’s Party), the SLA, the RUF, and foreign business interests spread across an alarming number of countries all stood to profit from continuing the war rather than ending it.
Ironically, to the detriment of the viewer’s understanding of the complete picture, the film glosses these complexities in order focus the blame on one particular actor— the international community. A critique of the international community is clearly warranted for a number of reasons, including two that the film does a reasonable job of documenting and explaining: first, the horribly mismanaged implementation of United Nations 1997 sanctions that withheld humanitarian aid from civilians; second, the Nigerian ECOMOG’s own looting, extra-judicial killings of RUF prisoners, and targeting of civilians—all while the “peacekeeping” force operated under the auspices of the United Nations. But a cogent, well-documented critique of the international community’s role in the overall conflict is a big project—one that really requires (and has been done) in a book like David Keen’s Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone (New York: Palgrave, 2005). Moreover, a critique of the international community’s role should not overshadow the culpability of the conflict’s other actors.
The film couples its criticism of the international community’s involvement with a troublingly sympathetic portrayal of the RUF as populist freedom fighters who are the victims of the Kabbah government and international community’s “anti- RUF propaganda efforts to make the RUF look like barbarians.” The film suggests that, although...