The Empire In Africa

The Empire In Africa


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

If Africa is a basket case, the biggest crazy must be Sierra Leone. It didn't start that way. Once it was the richest country on the continent. Now it's the poorest in the world.

The origin of the troubles that led eventually to chaos and destruction, with half the population displaced and Lord knows how many dead, was an honourable one. In the early 'nineties, the government was guilty of massive corruption and mismanagement, leaving a tiny minority obscenely rich and the rest living off $1 a day, or less. An organisation, known as RUF, emerged. Its aim was 'no more slaves; no more masters; power to the people!' A classic socialist revolution in the making.

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Sierra Leone has diamonds and desirable minerals of many kinds, which attracted other countries, such as Nigeria, that sent troops to bolster the government in 1993. Meanwhile, the killing, torturing and maiming spread like a plague across the land. Finally, the UN stepped in and manipulated an election to put their man at the top. The leaders of RUF are now in jail, where many have died in mysterious circumstances, and the natural resources are in the hands of foreign companies. The poor remain destitute and the capital Freetown is 'a devastated city'.

Philippe Diaz's documentary is interspersed with scenes of murder and torture. These appear random acts of anarchy, rather than anything militaristic. They are shocking and difficult to watch, especially when naked boys are forced face down in the back of pickup trucks as their arms are tied, but there are not many of these. The film is basically talking heads explaining, defending, accusing. By the end, it is difficult to know who did what to whom. The UN behaved badly. The British were not much better. The rebels cut people's hands off. The government forces shot anything that moved. Cluster bombs, banned worldwide, were dropped on villages. The vultures fed well for years.

The story is appalling. The explanations are complex. Those with UN experience who understood the importance of charm in international political circles did extremely well. No one seemed to notice that the country was dying. South African mercenaries were brought in for the coup de grace. When you have diamonds you can bribe anyone and, apparently, do anything.

The Empire In Africa is an important document. To understand it fully, you have to pay attention, and even then, you will be confused. Those who find the sight of a severed penis on the tip of a spear deeply unsettling should read the book.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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An exploration of the conflict in Sierra Leone.
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Director: Philippe Diaz

Writer: Philippe Diaz

Year: 2005

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US, Sierra Leone


Leeds 2006
EIFF 2006

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