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

I ask Jospeh Kaifala about Sierra Leone’s history with film. I am vaguely familiar. The heart wrenching Cry Freetown released in 2000 that broke my childhood identity into a helpless dichotomy— privileged escapee. The critically acclaimed and multiple-award winning One Goal. Many of its contributors being re-interviewed in 2012’s equally acclaimed La Vita Non Perde Valore. And finally there is Survivors— the account of Sierra Leone’s survivors of the 2014-17 Ebola virus Disease (EVD). In recent times, I have also seen the amateur documentaries about my country’s troubling and staggering rape culture; prostitution and sex worker 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. They leave citizens and cultural affiliates feeling helpless, and governments and NGOs indifferent. It appears that intervening does not fit in with their Annual Country Development Plan.

But, I have just come from a film screening of Kaifala’s Retracing Jeneba. So, 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. It seems, this is the feeling the film has left with the entire audience. During the post-screening Q&A, renowned singer and rapper Fantacee Wiz, holds the microphone to share her story of rape and sexual abuse during the war, and the action she now plans to take 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 a Sierra Leonean documentary. It is the story of how trauma can spur action. It is the story of why we should keep telling stories. 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— that patriarchs may not have the words to speak love, but they will always have the tools to show love— 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.

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 and ignite social change. I arrive at his Library with Dominique Fofanah, a budding young filmmaker who looks up to Kaifala and asks for autographed copies of his books. Fofanah has also begun leading new styles within a wave of digital filmmakers making immersive projects— this extends to those known as ‘Wizik’ and Nike Frances. All of their works call for cultural change.

At the screening of Retracing Jeneba, Kaifala stresses his key message is that it’s time for the nation to stop acting like the war never happened and just trying to forget. Rather, he urges a room full of politicians, business women and men, and ordinary civilians to never forget. To talk about it over and over again until we heal so that we can never repeat. This is a narrative echoed in the film as Kaifala revisits the cell where he was imprisoned as a child captive in Liberia, the refugee camp he lived in Guinea, and his father’s grave. He says his mother would never want him to visit these places— especially his father’s grave— that it hurts too much. 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, empowers him in his purpose. Watching Kaifala narrate this by his father’s grave, I realize how invoking my own personal trauma has always been my impetus as an anti-SGBV crusader.

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.

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