The Empire In Africa

2006, Movie, NR, 87 mins


Philippe Diaz's controversial documentary about the legacy of the brutal 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone — widely considered the poorest country in the world, despite its rich mineral resources — suggests that the rebel faction RUF (Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone) was not alone in terrorizing civilians and committing atrocities, most famously the amputation of limbs with machetes. A former British colony and a country of 4.5 million, Sierra Leone achieved independence in 1961 and held its first democratic elections the following year. But a series of military coups and a succession of corrupt regimes undermined both the country's infrastructure and its people's confidence in the government. Though Sierra Leone was rich in natural resources, including diamonds, most of the profit went to international corporations or lined the pockets of well-placed businessmen and politicians. Decades of grinding poverty and gross social injustice spawned the RUF, which backed its utopian ideals of redistributing Sierra Leone's wealth and restoring social equality — a vision embodied in the slogan "No More Slaves, No More Masters: Power and Wealth to the People" — with brutal violence. At the peak of its power, the RUF controlled a third of the country and meted out swift and brutal punishment to anyone suspected of being a government supporter, including pregnant women, small children, and impoverished farmers and fishermen with no larger interests than feeding their families. (Be warned: The film contains graphic footage of victims.) Diaz suggests, however, that the RUF wasn't alone in murdering and mutilating noncombatants, pointing a finger at the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, whose 1996 election was tainted by well-grounded accusations of fraud. The signing of a peace accord in 1999 failed to stop the violence that ultimately killed 70,000 people and displaced millions into refugee camps, and Diaz is especially critical of the United Nations, which refused to acknowledge the illegitimacy of Kabbah's presidency, and also of career diplomat Peter Penfold, the former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone. Diaz refuses to accept received wisdom about the RUF's savagery, and it clearly took more than one revolutionary movement to reduce Sierra Leone to abject poverty, since the country was once capable of not only feeding itself but exporting agricultural products to other nations. But Diaz comes perilously close to using the transgressions of others to excuse those of the RUF. Originally narrated by French actor Michel Piccoli, the version of the film released in the U.S. substitutes the voice of singer Richie Havens. (In English and subtitled in Krio and French) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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The Empire In Africa
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