Sing, Freetown

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of interviewing award-winning investigative journalist Sorious Samura and documentary film-maker Clive Patterson on their upcoming documentary Sing, Freetown.

Having grown tired of always telling negative stories about Sierra Leone, Sorious decides to embark on a journey to create an inspiring work of national theatre, to help bring pride back to a nation with an amazing history, but facing many challenges. To do this he turns to his mentor and friend Charlie Haffner, Sierra Leone’s celebrated national playwright.

Roxanne Reviews: In the documentary you describe Sierra Leone’s thriving theatre scene in the 1970s up until the government clamp down when artists were persecuted. Could you tell me a little bit about that clampdown and why artists, in particular, were targeted?

Sorious Samura: At the time there were social and economic injustices, the corruption was growing. The print media, in particular, was very vocal at the time and started taking on the government, naming names. The media was vibrant and cruel at times, they didn’t hold back. So, the government quickly shut down that outlet and so we had no way of voicing out that anger or bringing out those problems. Theatre quickly filled that void, and the plays were critical of the government. A lot of the journalists who were shut down came into theatre and so it became the mouthpiece of the people.

The government obviously wasn’t happy, and they were looking at ways of making sure that, again that outlet was shut down. They started censoring the plays which was not happening before. They started making it difficult for people to get the halls to perform. They started arresting writers and directors who came up with plays that were very critical of the government. There was a strange mysterious fire in the one main hall that we were using, and after that, halls weren’t available. Artists were being threatened, people were being arrested at home, I was in one situation where a director and his group were arrested, and I was doing lights for them when we were all taken to police cells. They claimed it was just for our own protection. So basically, that’s how they managed to shut down theatre.

RR: Wow, so essentially it was like a silencing technique. And obviously because you are known for speaking out against these kind of things, it’s kind of made you a controversial figure in Sierra Leone. Do you not worry about the consequences of speaking out? Even though that wasn’t the intention of this documentary, you had to shine a light on a bit of corruption on the issue with the Paralympian George Wyndham and his sponsor. What is the cause of this scarcity mindset that leads to people acting in this kind of way and how can we fix it?

SS: Wow that’s a loaded one, how can we fix it? First of all, I’ll tell you a quick story. There was a time when we were filming my second documentary in Sierra Leone after Cry, Freetown. My director and I were filming in the East End of Freetown and an old lady walked up to me and asked me whether she could pray for me. In Sierra Leone this is a little bit weird as there are all sorts of mythical thoughts about somebody taking your power, but I said OK go ahead, and she prayed.

When she finished, people then explained who she was. When the rebels came, her son had just come back from the US and had brought everything to live at home in Sierra Leone. So, when the rebels came, they knew about this guy and they went specifically to the house. They burnt all the vehicles that this guy brought and they threatened to kill his family, but they charged him to pay for each and every member of the family before they let them go. He did all of that, and when it came to the last of the money the rebels said to him,

‘If you want to survive, you’ll have to pay for different parts of your body.’

So, for the left arm they charged him a certain amount of dollars, the right arm was another amount. By the time they got to the left foot, the man had run out of money, and so they killed him. And that old lady, the last thing she said to me was,

‘I’m begging you, I’ve heard about you and what you’ve been doing reporting the war and you’re the only one who told the story as it is. Please continue telling our stories because we cannot tell them for ourselves.’

And people were shocked because they said since her son was murdered, she hadn’t spoken. I was the only one she came and talked to. For people like those, I owe it to them because I made a choice to do what I’m doing. For somebody like that I will forever make sure that indeed I keep representing them. Of course, I have not been telling the kind of story that I believe she wanted, that’s why in fact we ended up doing this kind of story because somebody like that would want Sierra Leone to change, would want people to come and see a different Sierra Leone. So, I would want to keep telling their stories.

But what we can do to change Sierra Leone is an enormous task because the damage has been done from the classroom. Corruption is normal, people being violated has been accepted, how do you change that society? How do you change the way people think? How do you actually get politicians to understand that they are employees of the people and to respect the people?

We have to go back to the classroom, because all of us, including myself, some of the bad things we learnt them in the classroom. So, we have to go back to the drawing board to start changing and getting people to learn what respect is, to learn what responsibility is. We used to have in Sierra Leone what we called Civic Education. That way of teaching was how they used to teach us about responsibility and our rights and respect. That subject which was so important in the way we were shaped was taken out and Western structures were brought in. We need to reintroduce that particular subject in schools, so people start understanding what responsibility is.

RR: Clive, I don’t want to exclude you from the conversation. Because, as I mentioned earlier, Sorious Samura is seen as a potentially controversial figure, there are some risks in following somebody like this in a country that you’re not native to. What did you find the most challenging part about filming this documentary?

Clive Patterson: I mean, I’ve been working with Sorious for twelve years. We have travelled across the African continent together, making films from south Africa, to West Africa, to East Africa to central Africa. We’ve been to hostile environments and warzones together and investigating stories which carry some kind of risk, I guess.

To be honest, in a lot of ways we embarked on this particular journey together feeling that this was going to be a very different project, that the intention was different. That Sorious, was liberated really from the constraints that are otherwise put on him and all of us really, as storytellers by broadcasters and commissioning editors. They have their requirements and the way they see the world, which they expect you to meet. So this was an opportunity to be totally free and independent and for Sorious to really tell a story which he thought was totally true to himself and authentic as far as telling the Sierra Leonean story was concerned.

It’s interesting because we kind of went into it with that spirit, and I saw my role in terms of trying to channel the story for the outside world, so that they could also appreciate and access the incredible richness of the country. And also, the incredible richness of Sorious’ story and of Charlie’s story.

So we didn’t expect any risk but of course, it’s a documentary, it’s real life you never know what will happen and suddenly we were facing challenges we didn’t expect. Suddenly there was a slight sense of being watched maybe by the authorities. But to be honest, I think with the experiences Sorious and I have had together over the years working in these kinds of environments, I feel he’s a very good companion, especially in Sierra Leone and in these kind of situations. I think we have the experience to navigate them quite well these days. So, there was nothing challenging in that respect, I think it was more the fluidity of the story.

Filming over a year and a half, never knowing what was around the next corner, trying to anticipate as storyteller how this is all going to work together. You know, you set out with one mission and then suddenly half-way down the journey Sorious and Charlie are shouting at each other, and you’re thinking ‘hang on, this isn’t what we intended.’ But that’s the beauty of real life, and that’s the beauty of documentary and I think that’s the beauty of this film.

RR: Exactly. I think it added another dynamic to the documentary where it didn’t solely focus on the product of what the play was going to be. There was this element of brotherhood and friendship between Mr Haffner and Mr Samura, I think it was a really good balance you achieved there.

RR: Sorious Samura, in the documentary you said you wanted the play to be a mirror to hold up to Sierra Leonean society. What did you want your Sierra Leonean audience to see in that mirror?

SS: At the end of the play, what I wanted as a take away was for Sierra Leoneans to be able to understand that through Charlie (Haffner) we were able to show what Sierra Leone was like when we were growing up. Just the good old days. I wanted people to see through Charlie’s play how we have gone down the wrong path, and then hopefully the play would then bring people back, realising what the wrong things are and how we can correct them. Charlie drew from the sense that things are going downhill in Sierra Leone so he started thinking the play I want to do is a play that will take a young couple on a journey to try and change the mindset, to try to rescue their country, to try and make sure that they see what is wrong with this country.

My hope was that this play would then end up saying; this is where we were, this is where we’ve gone wrong and this is where we need to be if we’re going to be respected, if we’re going to be taken seriously, if we’re going to turn this country around. That’s the sort of play that I was hoping Charlie would come up with. Did he manage to get that? I’ll say people will find out when they watch the film.

RR: Finally, is there any way people outside of Sierra Leone can watch ‘A Nation’s Journey’ (the play produced in the documentary)? Will the play go global?

CP: I feel like Sorious may be better placed to answer this. We hoped and I guess Sorious says in the film that maybe this play will even travel beyond Sierra Leonean borders. Truth is, funding is the problem. Charlie had very limited funds and only enough to take it round the country to a few destinations once. We of course, would love for the play to travel further if we’re able to get support and maybe this film will actually offer the play a second chance. That’s what’s interesting about this project, you get two chances, we’re telling two stories at once and there are two release dates. Maybe this film will help regenerate some life for the play.

RR: I really hope so because I’d love to see it. From the clips I saw I’d be really interested to see it.

SS: We hope the film will premiere in Sierra Leone some time this year. We were just waiting to get to the Documentary Festival before it premieres in Sierra Leone, because it’s equally important for Sierra Leoneans to see this film and see themselves and hopefully learn something from the film.

Sing, Freetown will be having a limited theatrical run with Picturehouse Cinemas from 25th June 2021.

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