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Retracing Jeneba— Moving Sierra Leone's documentary culture from advocacy to artivism

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

I sat down with Jospeh Kaifala to learn about Sierra Leone’s film history. I was vaguely familiar, and not well versed. My personal repertoire consists of the heart wrenching Cry Freetown released in 2000 which broke my perceived sense of self into a defenseless dichotomy— that of the privileged escapee. Next, was the critically acclaimed and multiple-award winning One Goal, of which many of its contributors were re-interviewed in 2012’s equally acclaimed La Vita Non Perde Valore; and finally there is Survivors— the uncomfortable account of Sierra Leone’s survivors of the 2014 to 2017 Ebola virus Disease (EVD). More recently, I have also seen documentaries about my country’s troubling and staggering rape culture, sex work, human trafficking, and Coronavirus in the countryside. Most of these films were created for news networks and advocacy purposes. The message is— we are suffering, and nobody seems to care, please send help. These films leave citizens and cultural affiliates feeling helpless, and governments and NGOs left apathetic. One would not be mistaken to assume that intervention is not on the agenda.

However, having just returned from a film screening of Kaifala’s Retracing Jeneba. I am ignited, I am keen, I want to hear stories, I want to share stories— I want to be a part of something just as transformative as the film. And I feel as though my art, and collective art can heal the pain and trauma from the war. This feeling seems to resonate with the entire audience. During the post-screening Q&A, singer and rapper Fantacee Wiz, held the microphone to share her story of surviving sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) during the war, and the action she now plans to take to use her music to help those struggling with the same trauma she has held for years.

And so, sat in his personal library, post-screening— I ask Kaifala about Sierra Leone’s history with film. He replies that Sierra Leone does not have much of a history of film— what we have is a history of theatre, live performance, and oral storytelling a tradition known to our 13 odd tribes as the ‘djeli’ and the ‘djeli-musu— men and women who make you move by bringing the past, the future and the present to your feet in storytelling-songs.

It clicks. Kaifala’s Retracing Jeneba is not just another tragic Sierra Leonean documentary. It is the story of how art can release trauma, invoke others to release trauma, and spur independent action— in lieu of cries for help. It is the story of why we should keep telling stories— in our way and for ourselves. We tell stories so that we, ourselves, do not forget. Not just to beg for help.

It is an immersive experience that invokes the djeli tongue of a Mende man, reminding us that we are each here because of that one matriarch who fought for our life after birth. We are reminded that Sierra Leonean patriarchs may not have the words to speak love, but they speak other love languages, which often involve art. We are also reminded that Sierra Leonean culture is to grow with community or not grow at all.

Kaifala’s film perhaps, is a product of how he lives his life. A lawyer, a Program Manager at Sierra Leone’s leading feminist organization (Purposeful), a historian, an author of three critically acclaimed works— one being a book of maxims, an activist, a protector of mass graves, and one who fundraises to build schools in rural towns where there were none. How could the film not be poetic? How could it not bring artists to tears, then laughter, then tears, then hope, and then action all at once. His film-style is also a product of the nature of Sierra Leone’s small but lively and budding millennial film and storytelling community.

When we look at Sierra Leone storytelling today, Kaifala is indeed part and parcel of the wave of modern filmmakers using the art to encourage conversations, foster more art and ignite social change. I arrived at his Library with Dominique Fofanah, an up-and-coming young photographer and filmmaker who looks up to Kaifala and asked for autographed copies of his books. Fofanah has also begun leading new styles of photography on Instagram within a wave of digital artists and filmmakers of immersive art— this includes Wizik and Nike Frances.

What exactly are we doing differently? Well, in short, we are centering. Since the explosion of the European printing press, and the birth of Western media hegemony, any media about the Global South automatically positions the West as ‘norm’ and the Global South as ‘periphery’. It has been executed so deliberately and pervasively, that even the Global South’s media community took on this narrative as a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can see it in headlines that read “(insert African country here) artist combines local cloth with western cuts, bringing his fashion into the modern”. As if anything African can never be inherently modern, noteworthy, or even normal— unless merged with something Western. That blanket headline is a dime a dozen scrolling down any major news network’s website. In fact, if you scroll down the website or social media accounts of any major news network’s Africa column, that headlines are formulaic. The approved list reads as follows; animal does something arbitrarily interesting; an afrobeats artist has a new song— lets talk about its connection to the West; elections somewhere, what’s happening; Africa’s (but actually Nigeria’s and Kenya’s) reaction to a Western breaking news event. Feature columns include avant garde artists whose works are written about only in relation to Western museums and film placements.

What if Sierra Leone and Africa as a whole discussed what is interesting to us— the daily, the mundane, the intricate, food sovereignty, urban planning, annual floods, regional trade, getting jobs, the economy, how all the civil wars in the nineties birthed a ton of artists and filmmakers making art and film that doesn’t say our country’s name like its somewhere over there. Art and film that doesn’t present a country’s context and background, relevant statistics, geographic contextualisation, and explanations of names and themes before delving into the heart of the subject. It positions norm just as the headline “Under the Influence by Chris Day— The artwork inspired by the oldest known rum in the world” (BBC Arts, 2022). A real headline for the work of an indie British artist no one knows, does just that. It normalizes being British and doing something normal or something interesting. In the same vein, news networks tell us that if you are from Ghana and you have done something interesting, then everyone must know the fact that you are from Ghana is interesting in and of itself. It is not.

Africans are not topics of interest for the Western gaze. We are humans having human experiences that our artists beautifully capture for art purposes. This is the narrative Sierra Leonean film and Kaifala is becoming rooted in.

At the screening of Retracing Jeneba, Kaifala stresses his key message: that it’s time for the nation to stop acting like the war never happened. Rather, he implores a room full of politicians, businesswomen and men, and ordinary civilians to use art, to never forget. To talk about it repeatedly until we heal so that we never repeat. Mid-film, Kaifala revisits the cell where he was imprisoned as a child captive in Liberia, the refugee camp he lived in in Guinea, and his father’s grave— to read these spaces his poetry. He shares that his mother would never want him to visit these places. But for Kaifala, it is not only cathartic, it reminds him of his purpose. His father was an educator, and so education remains his legacy on earth as Kaifala builds schools in his dad’s name. Remembering why he started, grounds him in his purpose. Watching Kaifala narrate this by his father’s grave, I realized how invoking my own personal trauma has always been my impetus as an anti-SGBV activist and storyteller.

2021 is already proving to be cathartic for Sierra Leone film, theatre and television. I am now familiar with independent production and theatre companies like Lens Studios Zero, 3rd Culture Kid Productions and Kip Kompin Cinema. As Kaifala’s work grows within this space, I am excited to see how the way we tell stories about ‘the war’, as we so nonchalantly call it, is evolving to reflect art that liberates and restores dignity. I believe the human condition demands it.

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