Freetown: Coming of Age / 17 martie / 20h00 / Centrul Ceh

un eveniment Centrul Ceh sustinut de Pilsner Urquell






Canada, 2007, 45 min
Regie, productie, imagine: Arwen Kidd (Canada)
Asistenta productie: Oliver Smith (UK)
Montaj: Alexandru Radu (Romania)
VO / Subtitrari in engleza

In 2002, Republica Africana de Vest, Sierra Leone s-a nascut in urma unui razboi civil de 10 ani, care a avut mii de victime si a destabilizat infrastructura tarii. Dupa 5 ani, Sierra Leone face eforturi pentru a se redresa, si continua sa fie ultima pe lista ONU a celor mai putin dezvoltate tari.
De la studenti la copiii strazii, de la fosti combatanti la cantareti pacifisti, de la drogati la maturatori de strazi, taximetristi si prostituate si chiar si singurul psihiatru oficial din tara, toti sunt prezenti in acest documentar in incercarea de a identifica problemele tineretului din Sierra Leone.

Mai jos puteti citi e-mail-urile lui Arwen din perioada petrecuta in Sierra Leone. 5 saptamani, o experienta si cateva randuri.

If you would like to learn more about some of the youth in Arwen’s film, including ideas of how you might be able to help, please write to Patrick Ambrose (, who has recently founded the YOUTH DREAM CENTRE SIERRA LEONE (YDCSL), a community project helping to give youth the support they need to build better futures for themselves.


freetown02.jpgIn 2002, the West African Republic of Sierra Leone emerged from a decade-long civil war. The fighting claimed thousands of lives and heavily damaged the country’s infrastructure. Now, five years later, Sierra Leone is still struggling to rebuild itself, and remains at the bottom of the United Nations’ list of the world’s least developed countries.

For the youth of Sierra Leone, civil war provided the backdrop to their childhood. Many were directly involved in the war atrocities, as both perpetrators and victims, and all were – and continue to be – affected in the aftermath. It is these youth, who make up the majority of the nation’s population, who hold the key to its future. And it is their stories that Freetown: Coming of Age focuses on.
The film will be followed by discussions with the director.

On July 30, 2007, a pair of 21-year-old university students – Canadian Arwen Kidd and Briton Oliver Smith – arrived in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Their goal was to produce a documentary film about the youth of Freetown – which they did, and titled it ‘Freetown: Coming of Age’. During the five weeks of filming, which also happened to coincide with the national elections, Arwen (Producer, Director & Cinematographer of the documentary) wrote a series of candid e-mails to friends and family about her experiences making the film. Here they are:

This will be my first proper note to all. I have settled into Freetown quite well now – still a bit of trouble with taxis as it’s ‘set prices’ rather than barter rules, but I don’t understand these prices (because they seem to just run on ‘common knowledge’ arrangements). So I never can understand when we’re being ripped off or not, and I hate having to argue about this when you’re getting out, because everyone knows you’re foreign – in the end, you’re left with no choice but to trust, really. The water in the city has also been off for the last two days (we normally have running water from about 6am-10am), but other than that the place we are staying is quite good – very friendly staff and simple but satisfactory rooms. Generator-run power is from about 7:30pm-midnight, during which time I charge my camera batteries. Two doors down is an orphanage, and our next door neighbour is a place called ‘City of Rest’, which is a drug rehab centre. Apparently, if the ‘patients’ try to escape they are made to wear chains (though they’re not tied to anything). If they try to escape again, their chain is attached to a chair. So you hear a lot of chains. Chains and religious singing, for what must be close to 6 hrs every day. We are about a 7 min walk from the Cotton Tree (downtown landmark), so very central. I haven’t gotten sick yet (yay!), though I am also being more careful about what I eat than when I was in previous West African trips. One of my British neighbours was diagnosed with actual dysentery yesterday, so…
Onto a completely different note – As for documentary news, I have brought out my camera twice so far – once to get scenic shots of Freetown (we’re staying up on a hill overlooking the city so beautiful views from the balcony), and then again this morning we went down to Lumley Beach where an Australian volunteer we met takes out a bunch of the street kids to play football on Saturdays. The guys spoke so passionately with us, sharing some amazing and hard stories. Some are taxi drivers or sell things, but none can currently afford to go to school and many end up stealing or doing drugs. Because we were introduced to them by someone they trust they were okay having us interview them – we were very lucky that way. Apparently someone interviewed them before, but they drove up in a big white guarded SUV, had tons of equipment (both things = $), interviewed them and never came back – so they are wearier to trust us, but the ‘leaders’ of the group (the boys with the ‘worst reputations’) and also some SL teachers who have been visiting and helping the kids out have invited us back to see them one night this week, when everyone is gathered at the building where they sleep. I’ve also told them that I will bring back the film when I return in October so that they can see it, which they are excited about.

We’ve also spoken with a number of organizations, including the Nova Scotia Sierra Leone drama troupe, who we’re travelling with on Monday to tape a performance. These are all 17-29yr olds, and Oliver and I had a sort of ’roundtable’ discussion with them on Thurs – they were very curious about Canada and the UK, and asked a lot of questions about our national histories, as well as homosexuality and traditions surrounding marriage/kids in our cultures, which shows what open individuals they are, as these are not ‘common neutral’ topics I have come across in West Africa before. We then went into an information and technology training ngo called iEARN, which currently has a lot of foreign volunteers. The kids do music and learn computer skills, and are very excited to be involved with the documentary. We’ve heard they also have an art teacher who works there to help kids overcome problems by drawing them out. So we’re meeting a lot of people, and all is busy (which is great! I’m just waiting to hit brick walls…). Yesterday we visited a promotional studio, but left a bit disappointed, as we’d spoken with the manager the day before, but then came back to interview him and ended up sitting in the waiting room for an hour (watching BBC news on tv, however – a real luxury), before being brushed off onto a short round man wearing gold chains and shoving biscuits into his mouth. He actually introduced himself to us as ‘Show Biz Manager.’ Not exactly helpful… Oh well.

But so many people have been so helpful and kind that I am immediately always reminded of why I love West Africa. Other foreigners included – for example, when we signed in at the British High Commission our first day (under commonwealth act I can sign there since there’s no Cdn embassy in SL), we were given a lift back down the hill by two American guys working with church groups – one of whom is moving to Romania next winter! It is a small world…


Thought I’d write before everything gets too caught up this weekend. As people are preparing to hit the polls on Saturday’s elections here in Freetown, the whole city is a bit crazy. The week has been taken up by party rallies, and the streets are awash with colours – Tuesday was orange, Wednesday red, and today green, reflecting the party that each days’ rally is for. The British military is here, plus the regular UN is all over. I even saw a Cdn soldier the other day (though just 1…). I’ve heard there will be a curfew in place both Saturday and Sunday, and either way we’ve planned not to film at all during this time. A number of my friends here have registered as international observers, and will be located at polling stations – it will be interesting to hear their stories. Then after Saturday it’s just a matter of figuring out when the results will be announced (no set date) and judging the situation accordingly. So the documentary filming is sort of ‘on hold’ at the moment.

However, since we have absolutely nothing to do with the elections, people have been very happy to meet us and speak with us for the film, so it’s been going very well. After being grabbed by the arm on the street and demanded to answer a greeting of “Are you an observer? No – then you are a journalist!” numerous times, I’ve managed to convince everyone so far that I am a filmmaker, but not covering the elections. Once we explain and tell them we’re here filming a documentary about youth, they typically change their attitude completely, saying it is a very important issue and it is good we are here. It is amazing how quickly an attitude can change.
Highlights include Monday’s trip to the Wilberforce Army Barracks market where we filmed the drama troupe of young SL individuals who do educational performances about malaria and HIV/AIDs (filmed their performance after gaining permission from first the head military commander – who was so impressed with the fact that Oliver was British, b/c the Brits ‘taught him everything’, that he was quick to wave us through – followed by the Mammy Queen, ‘leader’ of the market women). The performance itself was amazing and fun, as the way the performers get the attention of the people around is they have two of the girls go in and start a ‘mock fight’ – this day they pretended they were two wives of the same husband, one pregnant, one not, and they were arguing about who got to sleep under the treated bed net, b/c the man could only afford one. It was an ‘argument’ that ended up with the two of them screaming at one another and physically rolling around fighting before being pried apart by another drama troupe member, as well as the growing crowd of about 50-70 market-goers (who are by this time all heavily involved in the argument, crowded around and yelling out their own 2-cents, plus laughing and enjoying the whole spectacle – true African-style… Let me tell you, being at the centre of this holding a camera is another experience all together!). After the ‘performance’ they do group discussions, now that everyone is thinking about the argument, about the realities of malaria, and help to educate the people about prevention and free treatment. Everyone was keen to talk. In short, the whole thing was amazing, and I was highly impressed. Trying to balance a camera on a shoulder-mount and hold an umbrella, while being attached to microphones and headphones and walking in a crowd on a rough track with traffic is a little difficult, but all part of the experience – at least I didn’t have to talk with the guy wearing dark shades and shorts who kept trying to interrogate my assistant producer, Oliver, telling him he was part of the Sierra Leonean FBI (which, by the way, I don’t think even exists. And if it does, well, I think it’s pretty safe to say he isn’t part of it).

And since Monday, we’ve done two more sets of taped interviews – one with young aspiring artists (which seems to be the majority of young men in Sierra Leone – many have ‘artist names’ and are eager to perform) and one yesterday with a couple guys who are employed as street cleaners under the government’s Youth Employment program. Also, Monday and Wednesday night I helped out one of my British neighbours, who is conducting surveys for an ngo to learn about womens’ issues in the country – about cultural and personal beliefs about faithfulness, wife/husband roles, and abuse, among other things (asking questions like, ‘Do you believe physical domestic abuse is acceptable? What if your partner says you deserve it?’ or ‘Have you ever accepted money for sex?’). Not exactly easy questions to ask a complete stranger, but the purpose was to gain information and perspectives, b/c if NGOs know what the women want/need, they can create programs which target the issues they themselves feel are most important – and act accordingly, in their best interests. So the project meant the two of us being taken to different locations, where we probably met around 150 people, from literally all walks of life. People were eager to speak with us because there are so many ngos here, and they know some of them do good work, and because we were escorted/introduced by community members, and they had been told we were coming beforehand, so were actually lining up because they all wanted a chance to speak with us. We were taken around by a couple local teenagers, who thankfully looked out for us – which was made very clear when one of the guys ushered us out early from one of the buildings saying “We leave now”. Apparently some of the other boys were planning to mug us if we stuck around. All we had on us was some small money (we’d been warned before we came), but considering these boys even steal from each other this was not surprising (typically all they want is whatever you have on you, not to hurt you). But our ‘guides’ took very good care of us, so in the end it was indeed a positive and informative experience. I know its cliché, but I feel so lucky at times like these, that I have never had to know this kind of life – for example, some of the boys were showing me pictures of their friend who was shot and killed the night before while trying to break into and rob a compound with armed guards. It obviously wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but for youth who can’t afford school, have no skills-training other than maybe driving (some do have licenses, but end up – for one reason or another – not being able to rent from the owners). So this is what they end up doing.
Anyway, that’s my doc news. And when we’re not working, I’m enjoying the country. Although it is not ‘built up’ by any standard I’ve ever known, there’s still plenty of ‘entertainment’ to keep me sane! Including lively markets, enough good places to eat, friendly people, and absolutely gorgeous beaches. Although the roads to reach them, no matter how short they may appear on a map, take forever to drive (example, 3 km last weekend took us an hour and a half in a rented taxi), as they are in horrible shape – and made even worse by the fact that it is currently rainy season – the deserted white sand stretching before you is worth every uncomfortable minute it takes to get there. We have been told that one of the beaches was supposed to be turned into a Club Med before the war, but now resembles nothing of the sort. Thank goodness for that, although the local ‘tourism’ businesses are suffering greatly, which is sad to see.

It is very hot here, and odd being ‘thrown into’ a place at the height of election excitement, but all is good so far. We are in touch with the British High Commission so are aware of the safety measures (quite the funny meeting – we got ‘briefed’ about the ‘Civil Contingency Plan’ by an ex-military Brit who is head of International Security here [previous posts include Iraq and Afghanistan], and was clearly so excited to actually have someone to tell about this plan and safety measures that he stayed well after his quitting time just to pour over a map with us. Of course, his two main pieces of advice – ‘Don’t go downtown if you can possibly avoid it’ and ‘Make sure you lock all your car doors and roll the windows up’ – are absolutely useless to us, as our accommodation is located directly downtown, and we can only afford to use shared taxis and poda-poda minivans, which typically means squeezing into vehicles with between two and 15 other people already in them. Anyway, at least now I am able to tell my worried family and friends that I’m completely aware of all ‘official safety measures’ for this election period…!). And still, there is so much hope in this country for a peaceful election – I am anxious to see how it all turns out.

AUGUST 16, 2007 – “JUST THE WAIT…”
So I thought it might be time I sent a description email. I realize I sort of just jumped into ‘documentary’ and ‘election’ and ‘happening’ updates – which definitely reflected my experience of hitting the ground running once I got here – but in doing so have failed to really do the country and city justice by explaining it in its own right. So here are some random literary ‘snapshots,’ just to give you a feeling for the place, and for my experience here.

Freetown. Gorgeous location – long stretches of beach, bays, hills that allow beautiful panoramic views. A lot of slum areas, and quite crowded, but not at all unbearable to walk around in. Though traffic is a bit of a nightmare – much worse than Bucharest, though not so much because of the number of cars as because of the narrow streets that get clogged up. Sadly, I have little problem seeing why the country is ranked as the poorest in the world – there is very intermittent running water, rarely ever government electricity (only time I saw it was once during the elections – most likely an attempt to rally votes), very poor roads, and it’s quite dirty. Apparently there’s a cholera outbreak going around at the moment – not all that hard to see why. However, that said, even though it is rainy season (which means POURING rain for at least a few hours almost every day) there is an excellent drainage system. There are open sewers, but you don’t see sewage sitting around like in Accra (which means the city smells very nicely in comparison), and the flood waters disappear quickly – sweeping fast down hills during the downpours, however, so you have to be very careful when walking, not to slip or get knocked over.

Walking on the streets, foreigners get their fair amount of attention. Not overwhelming amounts, though it does get a little tiring when guys grab your arms saying “Excuse me, I’d like to talk to you” over and over (I think my favourite so far was the guy who skipped the cursory ‘I love you’ and ‘I want to marry you’ the other day and went straight for grabbing my arm forcefully and simply stating, “You ARE my wife!” I had to laugh – it was honestly just too ridiculous not to be funny). But then there are the children and everyone else who just wants to say hello, how are you, give you a thumbs-up (by the way, I only have about 5 krio phrases to date, but am trying to learn and am understanding a bit more – “how de body?” for example, is “How are you?” I am spoiled anyway, as everyone speaks english to me on the street, and I am automatically termed “White girl”, or just “White man.”

And there is a fair amount of foreigners – at the moment more than usual because of the election observers (European Union, United Nations, a few journalists, etc) that came in. And a lot of Lebanese business owners are here for the long haul – other than that not a huge amount of foreign investment in the form of ‘street business’ however. There are a number of expat ‘hangouts’ (a specific bakery downtown, for example, and some popular beach bars that apparently always have a similar assortment of patrons), but most of the foreigners seem to stay up in the hills near the embassies and UN, rather than where I am staying, which is right downtown. It’s amazing just how many NGOs and aid organizations there are all around – it seems every second vehicle on the road is a 4X4 SUV with some logo on it (land rover-style, usually white) or a UN patrol vehicle, again white, with a big black antennae – the rest of the vehicles are mostly taxis, but also a fair share of Mercedes and random luxury cars… So there is money already here and obviously coming in, but also a lot of poverty and, sadly, corruption.

Right now, things are a bit ‘back to normal’ (no street rallies – which, by the way, were something to be seen. Hundreds to thousands of people filling the streets dressed in colours, dancing, singing, cheering for their political parties. Lots of drinking, lots of crazy getups – I think my highlight was seeing a big red van loaded with up to 20 people race by at about 25km/hr down the main downtown street with five wheelchairs strapped to the back bumper, occupied by screaming and cheering amputee supporters. No picture, sadly… But I will never forget it!). The election day went alright, I suppose – 2 polling stations were broken into and ballot boxes stolen, staff battered (a cab driver actually told one of our neighbours a couple days later that his friends were offered new cars if they agreed to do this), some random fights/outbreaks occurred, and a lot of rumours circulated about rigged outcomes… But as the results have yet to come out, no one knows anything for sure. The radio, however, spouts numbers and acronyms every single day – long lists of results that go on and on… Everyone is anxiously waiting to see what happens.


Filming, as well, is back on track. Along with the usual difficulties in trying to set up interviews, find locations, and actually manoeuvre camera equipment in busy streets, come the little distractions that make everything five times as hard. Much to my assistant producer’s dismay, he seems to usually end up being the one who attracts most of the pickpockets and bystander curiosity while filming, which works all right for me (as I’m not distracted from the actual camera-work that way), but considering everywhere we film we typically attract a crowd of people around us, this is a little frustrating for one person. Imagine, for example, yesterday, when we visited two of our aspiring artists in their homes, and 20 little neighbourhood kids crowded up to watch, smashed into the doorframe and window behind me, trying to nick anything in grabbing distance, (ie: hands in Oliver’s pockets, the backpack, his shoes…). Every so often, whichever bigger boys were around helping us took it into their own hands to scream at the kids to be quiet, often physically reprimanding the most troublesome… Let’s just say we have a lot of guardian angels in the form of Sierra Leonean 20ish yr old guys – who are one of the only reasons I probably still have all my camera gear. Also, the fact that I carry it in the most beat up cardboard box in history, covered in a waterproof kayak bag probably doesn’t hurt – it looks more like a sack of laundry than anything anyone would be remotely interesting in running off with). And the fun continues – today we’re off to a recording studio to document our artists at work…

Interviews continue, including a local friend who took us around to his school and house where he lives with his extended family (as his parents and sister were killed during the civil war). Also took a couple motorbikes out to get Freetown footage – me with the camera strapped to a shoulder mount while on the back of one bike, Oliver on the bike behind. We got taken through a couple of dodgy areas, and in one instance I had an obscenity screamed at me (because I had a camera, I can only assume) but there were no major filming problems, not even hassle from police we passed. Although I do not like ‘drive-by filming’ without individual permission, it was absolutely necessary to get the scenery footage – which I did – and for the most part people were keen to be ‘snapped’. Many also got a huge kick out of seeing a white girl on a bike with a camera anyway, so laughed and pointed as we passed. The bike Oliver was on blew a tire twice, so we stopped to fix it and ended up getting some great interviews with the bike riders hanging around. Most are young guys, many educated or with other skill-training, but unable to get other employment. So it was very good to have the opportunity to speak with them. And after the bike ride, we also had the opportunity to re-visit some of the street kids we met playing football during the first weekend. We have been dropping by to see them about once a week, and every time they open up a bit more. Their stories are often very hard – many including stories of being beaten and chased by the cops, after which they are only released if they have money to bribe the same police with. It is also hard to know what is alright to ask and not, particularly as there are a number of ‘taboo’ subjects in this country and culture, and the last thing I want to do is offend any of the individuals willing to sit down and speak with us. But, lucky for us, a lot of the time the youth we interview only need a slight suggestion before they launch straight into explanations of the major difficulties they face, the accomplishments they have made, and their opinions about the state of their nation. I feel very blessed that they are so willing to talk so candidly.

The next day, we went to speak with the head (read: only) psychiatrist in the country about drug use among youth, which is a huge problem – tracked him down after visiting a mental hospital & two different offices, but he turned out to be very helpful and well-spoken (in 5 different languages, including Ukrainian). He also provided 2 ‘escorts’ to walk us back, as some guys tried to rob me on the way there (common technique: one stepped on my foot and grabbed my arm to distract me, while his friend tried to get whatever I had out of my pockets. However, I’d noticed right away and yelled “NO!”, grabbed his arm and dug my fingernails in before he got anything out, so he jogged off without anything). However, the doctor said they saw my camera afterward, so best to have someone with us – in his words “Don’t worry about anything, because this man is very big and scary and will take care of you.” I thought it was a little much when the man shoved a boy out of my way who was only trying to sell me biscuits, but I have to admit that in some ways it was also nice to know someone was watching out for me.

So that’s the doc news, and I’ve also managed to renew my visa to allow my return this fall to do more films. The immigration office was nothing short of amazing, papers piled everywhere and you just sort of walk into random offices and tell people what you want – pretty chaotic. And yet, somehow, miraculously, it all turned out. I left my passport one day, went back and picked it up the next, a new visa freshly stamped upon its pages. Amazing.

Oliver and I arrived back safely after 2 hectic days. Picture this – we get stuck in Freetown traffic, so fearing we’ll miss the 2 o’clock ferry we ditch the taxi we’re in and pick up 2 motorbikes, with all our bags, to race us to the docks. Where, we’re told, the ferry is broken (we didn’t believe this immediately, as it’s a scam to make people take ‘speedboats’ to Lungi, which are hardly sea-worthy and hugely overpriced – but apparently 2 of the 3 ferries were actually broken… and the one we finally managed to get on left 3 hrs later actually had only one working propeller, so we travelled the distance sideways). However, lucky us did manage to make it to the flight on time (unlike those who chose to take the more expensive ‘hovercraft’, which actually broke down on the way there that night… By the way, the only other option is a helicopter – and for any of you who follow international news, you’ll know that one of the 2 crashed back in May, killing everyone on board – it took forever to remove the wreckage from where they’d shoved it, just off the side of the runway…it was still sitting there when we flew in back in July). Anyway, we made it out on schedule, only to arrive in London to a metro strike… and considering I had to switch airports from Heathrow to Gatwick, this was not ideal. But skip to the end – I’m back safe, with all my luggage and all my footage – and good health to boot!

So just a little ‘last week’ update – after a few hectic days wrapping things up, we ended the trip with a gorgeous and restful Saturday afternoon at the Kent beach, just down the peninsula from Freetown. Of course, the ‘restfulness’ was kind of negated when, upon our return to Freetown, we ran into police blockades about 50m from where we were staying. All we could see were people running through the downtown streets from between the Cotton Tree to the wharf area, and heard a couple gunshots. Apparently, we got back just as a riot was reaching its climax, and a half hour later the riot police released tear gas into the crowds. We decided it was best to stay in for the night. Anyway, the next day I had to go downtown, and, standing on the deserted main road, ended up talking with one of the guys who changes money on the street. According to him, about 20 people were injured during the riot, including police – and (I don’t know if this is true) it was all started when a football supporter in his RED Manchester United jersey (keyword red = APC party-colour) walked past the SLPP (ruling-party, green) headquarters on his way to watch a match. Arguments heated up, everyone around got involved, machetes (called ‘cutlasses’ here) were brought out (the money-changer said one guy lost an arm), and everyone picked up big rocks to throw – which, on Sunday, I could still see, strewn all around the roads where they were abandoned by those fleeing the teargas.

By the time we left the next day there was a pretty tense feeling in the city. The run-off voting will be held this Saturday, and after that I imagine it will be quite a drawn-out wait for the results. Rigging is of course a worry, and the announcement (when it comes) is sure to cause quite a stir, no matter what happens. I just hope it remains peaceful – and that’s what the people here say they want, too, so my hope for them is that it happens.
As for the documentary – the purpose of our trip – I have returned with a full soundtrack to use, created by the young artists we interviewed (called ‘Next Next Generation’), 14 hours of footage, and a month here in Bucharest to work with a local Romanian editor to produce the final film. I just hope it does everyone in it justice.
And then, of course, comes the next big hurdle – trying to get people interested in screening it…

…The journey continues…