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by Rod Amis

Philippe Diaz's "The Empire in Africa" (trailer), which premieres in theatres across in the United States on 8 December, is a troubling, highly graphic and enlightening film about the civil wars that ravaged Sierra Leone for over a decade. "The Empire in Africa" serves as a poignant counterpoint to the Hollywood vehicle "Blood Diamond" which will be released in US theatres the same day. Diaz's film, a documentary, is so powerful that after its French language version was played during Critic's Week at the Cannes Film Festival, India - the country contributing the second largest contingent of "peace-keeping" forces in Sierra Leone – withdrew its participation in the effort.

Unlike "Blood Diamond," an action film and garnering Oscar buzz because it features Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Empire in Africa" puts the onus for the bloodletting, the near-genocide, in Sierra Leone squarely at the feet of the United Nations and the "international community" led by the United States and the United Kingdom. The film is a co-production of Sceneries Europe Production in association with Action Against Hunger and Cinema Libre Studio. It is produced, directed and edited by Philippe Diaz and narrated by musician and activist Richie Havens. Among the awards already received by the film are:
  • Grand Jury Prize, Best Documentary – Slamdance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, USA
  • Grand Prize – African Film Festival, Montreal, CANADA
  • Most Powerful Film – One World Film Festival, CZECHOSLOVAKIA
  • Best Documentary – Hollywood Film Festival, Los Angeles, CA, USA

"The Empire in Africa" is not a film for the squeamish. As stated in my opening paragraph, it is graphic. Anyone familiar with the phenomenon which brought Sierra Leone, after years of strife and one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the last decade, to world attention – the "diamond" amputees - has some sense of what to expect from what this film reports. What is unexpected is the level of the carnage, its causes and how – as with Rwanda – it was so easy for those of us in the West to turn a blind eye. A fact of modern warfare since World War II, as has been often reported by dissident journalists but has yet, it seems, registered in the public consciousness is that the ratio of civilian-to-military deaths in warfare has increased exponentially over the last century.

You may know this about the different ratio of civilian-to-military deaths in war, how in World War I, ten military dead for one civilian dead; in World War II, it was 50-50, half military, half civilian; in Vietnam, it was 70% civilian and 30% military; and in the wars since then, it’s 80% and 85% civilian. I became friends a few years ago with an Italian war surgeon named Gino Strada. He spent ten years, fifteen years doing surgery on war victims all over the world. And he wrote a book about it, Green Parrots: Diary of a War Surgeon. He said in all the patients that he operated on in Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere, 85% of them were civilians, one-third of them, children… – Howard Zinn, address upon receipt of the Haven Center's Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship, November, 2006 - Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Diaz's film brings home powerfully the fact that the civil wars in Sierra Leone and the abuses of so-called UN peacekeepers were atrocities that overwhelmingly victimized women and children. The film, which also features proceedings in the United Nations, and the statements of UK Ambassador Peter Pentfold and US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, as well of those of UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, show a level of cynicism that is galling in the extreme to observe. The statements of these gentlemen, placed in counterpoint to the people on the ground in Sierra Leone, present a damning and shameful story that is easy to comprehend. Diaz says this about his film:
We spent more than a month on the ground fighting the government, the militias and the military to find and bring back the truth. And the truth is more than shocking: here again, like in most of Africa, the real authors of these crimes are… us - Occidental countries trying to retain what we believed was ours as a result of colonialism. For that we are ready to go to any extreme, legal or not. And for that we have a lot of accomplices: our own governments, the United Nations and, of course, the media.
Like many of the politically independent documentaries that have come to prominence in this opening decade of the new century, Diaz's film has an advocacy nature and an undeniable point of view. This is both good and bad, in that many viewers have begun to become inured to the facts presented and their implications, unfamiliar as we are to the notion that good journalism is meant to separate propaganda and "spin" from the truth on the ground. Our own predilections, then, rather than a lack of perspective on the part of documentarians, often makes us turn away from important work like that presented here. Not only to we suffer from "compassion fatigue," it seems, but also from truth fatigue. We would simply rather not know. If it doesn't affect us personally, it doesn't exist. That makes efforts like Diaz's harder to put into general release and usually puts them at the bottom of most DVD purchase lists. In the view of This Reviewer, such a decision would be a mistake for anyone committed to critical thinking and civic engagement. "The Empire in Africa" opens on 8 December at the following US locations:
  • NEW YORK, NY – Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, 212-924-3363
  • LOS ANGELES, CA – Laemmle's Grand 4-Plex, 345 S. Figuerroa Street, 213-617-0268
  • MADISON, WI – Marcus Westgate Art Cinemas, 340 Westgate Mall, 608-271-4033

Freedom Fries

That a natural affinity between Cinema Libre Studio and Your World's Magazine should have developed over the years should come as no surprise to Loyal Readers. After all, we're the sort of Web publication likely to support Buy Nothing Day and take a shine to independent films over the usual product-placement-fests that fill the cineplexes and malls of this country. Many of you have read our reviews of Cinema Libre projects like When Cinema Libre sent us the press release on a humorous, almost B-movie grade documentary entitled "Freedom Fries: And Other Stupidities We'll Have to Explain to Our Grandchildren," just before the holidays, we couldn't resist. It's low budget but it also turns out, in our view, to be the feel-good independent documentary of the season. It's worth the price of the ticket (or the DVD) for Reverend Billy and his choir alone. No lie.

"Freedom Fries" has a slow and almost-cheesy opening but then suddenly you're thrust into a film that operates on two levels. The first level, the one that begins to engage the viewer and make one take the film more seriously, goes away from the almost PowerPoint-slide presentation of the opening frames and begins a discussion about the kinds of decisions we make in our lives, why we are programmed and motivated to shop and what the implications of these behaviors are. The core, and important , message of "Freedom Fries" has to do with how, here in the United States (The Reviewer often does the Freudian typo of "Un-tied" States) we have been taught to replace the notion of civic engagement – and perhaps even common sacrifice – as an evidence of patriotism and to believe that consumerism equals patriotism.

This section goes on to extrapolate that buying is presented as a panacea – for happiness, for identity, for "American-ness" – from what clothes we wear, to whether we'll be liked, to our moods and sexual functions. This is not a hard case to make, of course, but perhaps it is not made enough. Then you get hit with the second level: the guerilla theater of Reverend Billy and the notion that even Wal-Mart can be brought down with a little chutzpah and humor. I won't give everything away but here's one clue: after the choir's anthem, as the credits are running, don't eject the DVD – there's still more to come. The anthem rocks! This one is a stocking-stuffer that you'll be thanked for many months to come. You can buy the film – for under $10! - by going here. Enjoy!


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