Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Blood, Diamonds and Amateur Anthropology

For those of you who were wondering what I was doing in Sierra Leone and what on earth WFP has to do with Blood Diamond, here is the article I recently wrote for the website (www.wfp.org).

But first a little background: earlier this month, I spent about two weeks in Freetown helping to screen the movie Blood Diamond for the World Food Programme, the first official public screening in the country. We managed to attract quite a lot of interest from the international press -- Reuters, AP, BBC -- but the experience was enlightening for other reasons as well. I was fascinated at the way people reacted to the film, shrieking out loud at scenes of violence, completely missing jokes that would have been funny to Western audiences and laughing at the men who went to such lengths to capture diamonds. There was one scene at the end that consistently got the biggest laughs each night: Leonardo DiCaprio is dying on a mountainside, and right before he gives it away he takes his first long, loving look at the pink diamond for which he had sacrificed everything. In the West we find this either touching or cheesy; in Sierra Leone, it's bloody hilarious. After all, why on earth would all these crazy white men kill each other over a rock?

I suppose that's the conclusion we're all meant to reach. We just reach it from very different directions.


Bringing it Back Home: WFP Screens Blood Diamond in Freetown
By Hilary Heuler

He knew Blood Diamond was an action film, and like any 15-year old boy, Mohammed likes action. When the lights dimmed and the opening credits rolled, the Sierra Leonean teenager was there with his friends, anxiously awaiting his first glimpse of the film that had opened the world’s eyes to the suffering endured by his countrymen during a decade of civil war.

But these boys sat apart, propped in wheelchairs or leaning on crutches. Like many members of the audience, they had lived through the violence on-screen, and they could still feel the terrible wrath of conflict in the limbs they had lost to the rebels.

Mohamed was a young boy when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) raided his village and chopped off his right leg, a punishment meted out to thousands of innocent civilians during the war. Now he spends his days lurking outside a popular Freetown restaurant in his wheelchair, begging from passers-by. But when the World Food Programme held the first public screening of Blood Diamond in the country, Mohamed and nearly 1,000 other Sierra Leoneans poured into the halls to watch.

From May 8-10, WFP Sierra Leone organized three screenings of the film, all free to the public. The agency worked closely with Warner Brothers to make the on-screen aid operations as realistic as possible, and the result are scenes that brought home to millions of viewers the indescribable humanitarian tragedy that defined one of West Africa’s most vicious civil wars.

Yet until now, the film had never been shown in the country whose bloody history it portrays, a country without real cinemas of its own. “We wanted to give the people at the very heart of the story a chance to see this film,” said County Director Felix Gomez. “We hope Sierra Leoneans will look back and take pride on everything they have achieved since the end of the war.”

This was no placid Western audience witnessing the faceless violence of far-off continents. In Freetown, the viewers owned the story, cheering enthusiastically when the good guys won, roundly abusing the South African mercenaries when they appeared on-screen. As Sierra Leonean journalist Idriss Kpange told me, the movie really did show what life was like during the war. He only wished it had been shot in Sierra Leone.

For Mohammed, production details were incidental. The film made him remember the years of brutality that ripped his country apart and changed his life forever. But as the lights came up and people began filing out of the hall, the boy in the wheelchair had a wide grin on his face.

Yes, he insisted, it was a really good show.