Wednesday, 28 March 2012

What the Sierra Leona International Film Festival Means For West Africa.

Film festivals have become a great art tool for any country and immediately the popular ones come to mind such as the Berlin, Cannes and Toronto film festivals. Our most prominent West African film festival is the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) held every two years in Burkina Faso and recognised as the largest on the African continent. Nigeria, the birth-land of Nollywood also has the Eko international film festival and a couple of other festivals organised in some cities.  There are currently seven countries that have international film festival in the West African region. This list also includes Guinea which interestingly hosts The Papua New Guinea Human Rights Film Festival (PNG HRFF) described as a medium that ‘promotes greater respect, protection and fulfilment of human rights for all and creates a forum for debate to empower the audience with the understanding that personal commitment can make a difference to end discrimination. The festival brings to life human rights stories.’ Human Rights film festivals are known to take place in other parts of the world and we even have ours in West Africa. This is just another indication of the diversity of our West African festivals. There are two West African countries on the verge of hosting their first ever international festivals and these are Ghana, a nation with a springing film sector next to Nollywood. The second country on the path to owning their festival is Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leona is a country that has gone through a lot of development and difficulties in modern history. When I think of Sierra Leone I think of the recovery it has had to make as a result of the civil war on its soil. Every time Sierra Leone comes to my attention through the media or a light conversation with friends or colleagues, my mind immediately goes to my friend Maria, who had to go to the country and do a research about how the war had created a lot of physically disabled people, specifically amputees, so when this film festival came to my attention I was curious and I desperately wanted it to be successful not only for Sierra Leoneans sake but for all of West Africa.  This festival is yet another demonstration how the arts can trigger development and national re-discovery. A good example is what famous Nollywood has done for Nigeria, and for the fear of been accused of been too wide a request perhaps this festival can do likewise for Sierra Leone.

From the second the Sierra Leona International Film Festival (SLIFF) was announced I monitored the level of enthusiasm and spirit that went into the planning. The festival’s main organiser,  Layna Fisher, has announced that ‘ The festival will contribute to Salone's continuing development and re-branding through the filmmaking industries, employment, local goods and services, positive media presence, tourism and via its educational development program’. We’ve been ‘warned’ to expect big things from this event. Having had a few interactions with the organiser and individuals close to her I know this project has come out of her passion for the country, and her passion for the Film and Arts in Sierra Leone. This piece, however, isn’t about the organiser; it’s about all of SLIFF together. The exposure that some of the young filmmakers and the female filmmakers will get from this festival will hopefully see them take up film making as a full time role as you would expect in any sound country. The humanitarian aspect of this festival is so evident when you think of the sessions dedicated to highlighting women’s stories of survival. Sierra Leona women and indeed other women from across the globe have a lot of stories to tell, stories of strength survival and colour. The international charities and non-political organisations that have come on board to support are an indication that the world has been waiting for something like this to come out of Sierra Leone and they embraced it with wide open arms.

No piece can do justice to a film festival, you would just have to attend and witness all the shows yourself. I am always glad when I see a country or region that has gone through a lot come alive with an arts event that would change the face and image of that place. The SLIFF organisers have been so strategic to sell Sierra Leone as the hotspot to be, not only for the films but to indulge one’s self in the country’s richness and atmosphere.  Sierra Leona is now the ninth country to join the list of growing West African countries to host an international Film festival.  There are a few countries who haven’t yet managed to host such an event but I can’t see Mali joining this list anytime soon, given the political set back that has just happened in recent days.    

Click here to see official press releases and more information about SLIFF, which opens today March 29th in Freetown. A panel of jurors made up of local arts professionals will be judging the Sierra Leonean films. The top winner will be crowned 'Salone Star 2012', and will receive 10million leones towards the making of their next film. This prize money has been provided by Comium.

As at March 2012, see below for a List of West African countries who host an international film festival and those that don’t.

  1. Benin – (No)
  2. Burkina Faso - yes
  3. Cape Verde (yes)
  4. Cote d'Ivoire (yes)
  5. The Gambia (no)
  6. Ghana (emerging)
  7. Guinea (yes)
  8. Mali (no)
  9. Guinea-Bissau (no)
  10. Liberia (no)
  11. Mauritania (yes)
  12. Niger (no)
  13. Nigeria (yes)
  14. Senegal (yes)
  15. Sierra Leone (yes)
  16. Togo (no)

Sunday, 8 January 2012

My experience with the Onitsha ‘task Force’ ASTA

It was my sister’s birthday, dad along with my brother, a family friend and I decided to go to Onitsha primarily to withdraw money in preparation for the indefinite strike action on Monday. I decided to come along so I could meet an organisation that I had been trying to contact for some time. I was hoping for a sort of a first meeting with them. Our first stop was at the bank where my brother and dad went to withdraw money. We headed to the organisation I wanted to meet, only to find out that they were shut early, this was round about past 3 pm.

As we made our way back home, which is not too far from Onitsha town I found out from my brother that we were on the same road where Happy bite (a bakery shop) was located. I asked my dad to stop so I could buy something. I went into the shop along with our friend, on my way out I saw some men in yellow t-shirt by the car which was parked on the main road. Some were coming out of a small regular public bus, the ones painted yellow and black stripes. I didn’t understand what was happening until I saw  a man also in yellow t-shirt forcefully put his hand through my brother’s window by  the passenger front seat and this man stretches his arm and yanks the car key from the wheel while my dad is still in the driver’s seat.

This was when I was slightly worried as I saw my dad come out of the car. I crossed the road and entered the car along with our family friend. My brother told me the men had come because we were parked on the road. I told my brother there wasn’t any ‘no parking’ sign on that road. By the time I got into the car my dad had stepped out and gone to the bus. I don’t remember seeing him getting in; meanwhile the man who snatched the keys from the board had come to the driver’s seat and started driving our car, his colleague jumped into the passenger’s side beside our family friend.  This was when the problems started. The men told us they were taking us to their office. As far I as I was concerned, a crazy man had jumped into the car, didn’t utter a word until we asked him and just started driving off to a destination that I had no idea, in a city that is known for all things negative!

The man was driving very rough and on several occasions we urged him to drive properly which he responded with aggression. He then proceeded to use his cell phone whilst driving and I remembered telling him not to do that as it was dangerous. I was surprised because this was a supposed government staff holding us hostage for breaking some traffic law yet here he was driving whilst on a cell phone and attempting to kill us with his rough driving.   I took some pictures (I sat directly behind him) on my non-smart Nokia phone whilst he was using a mobile phone and driving. I wanted to be sure that I at least had some documentation of the rubbish he was doing.

Suddenly the car stopped for security reasons, meaning then that only the owner of the car (my dad) or any other authorised person could drive the car. My brother asked this dumb driver to park nicely and he wasn’t bothered, he didn’t mind that we were on a busy road and the car engine was off. Eventually the car stopped right at the middle of a junction. I had no idea where I was neither did my brother or our friend. I couldn’t take it, I went out of the car I walked to the front and I took the guys picture. By this time I was even too furious to speak, as far as I was concerned these men were crazy.   The driver got out of the car and in igbo he started shouting ‘do you know where you are’, ‘I’m going to break your phone’… he grabbed the back pocket of my jeans he was trying to reach where I had kept my phone. My brother tried to restrain him, at this point the animal in him came out. He tried to stick my own father’s key into my left eyes. He was raging and threatening all sorts of unimaginable things. This is a man who works for the Anambra state government. One of the other disturbing things was, this man was without a question of doubt high on weed or something.  His mannerism and eyes demonstrated he was under the influence. All this drama   was taking place with people all around us. This was about 4 pm and the atmosphere was very clear.

By this time the bus we were following which had my dad had come to meet us at the junction where the car stopped. There was another man telling my dad to quickly drive off as my dad walked towards us. We all got into the car and my dad was silent while all three of us were asking him what happened and how they were able to let him off. Immediately anyone in that vehicle could tell that something was wrong especially with the way my dad was quiet. As we drove he told us that those men where criminals. I asked if he meant that they were criminals dressed as security task force. He said when he went to the bus to speak to their ‘oga’ as one of the guys had asked him too, they forcefully shut the bus door behind my dad and started driving off. They were four of them in the vehicle and they started rough handling my dad, using their hands to feel around his pockets and trousers. One forcefully took the money from my dad’s pocket, the money he had gone to collect from the bank earlier in our trip.

Now my dad is old, his above 60 so I’m not talking about some young boy. My dad even told us how he gave them his card showing that he was a clergy and they had no regards for that nor for his age. Everyone was shocked especially myself, I couldn’t believe the level of harassment my dad had told us about. I begged my dad for us to go to the police station and he told me outright that it was a waste time. That this task force told him that it was their job to forcefully collect money from people. The man had no plans of taking us to their office. There was no office, no receipt. Their plan was to harass us, assault us and forcefully take whatever money we had. My dad was just grateful that we were okay and we were happy that no further harm had happened to our father.

These men are known in Anambra state. They wear yellow t-shirts and they are the Anambra State Traffic and Road Decongestion Agency, popularly known as ASTA.  By the time we arrived home and started sharing our ordeal to some of our friends and relatives, I was mostly responded with other people’s experiences and some worse than ours. What I do not understand is why the governor Peter Obi, will permit hooligans and thugs to harass people for no reason. I even also found out that as long as you are sat in your car any road inspector or agency is simply meant to ask you to move especially when there isn’t a ‘no parking’ sign on that road.

One of the saddest parts of this incident is when I was told by everyone that going to the police was a waste of time. What is shocking is that everyone I speak to says that these ASTA men are pure thugs and criminals but yet the state allows them to rob people in broad daylight and calls them task force (what does that even mean?). Tomorrow they want foreign investors to come to Anambra state, a state where someone can threaten your life and beat you up just because they feel like.

Everyone knows about this nuisance why isn’t anything been done about it, this is my question?  This is happening at a time when Boko Haram is trying to kill every Christian Igbo person in the North and telling them to move back to the south. If you are an Igbo man fleeing from Boko haram, then you will come back to your state to meet the harassment and violence of ASTA? Sometimes I wonder if everyone is losing their mind in this country.  I have a picture of the man below but unfortunately this is not clear. I do not know if this can be rectified but if it can, I will send the picture as an attachment to anyone who can and I will contact some people to find out if the face can be clearer.

If everyone in Nigeria says ‘that is the way it is’ and we don’t help each other either by informing ourselves about such hooligan groups masquerading as authority, then yes this country will finally spoil. I have been given several suggestions on how to go about this matter, but I am in no denial about how the system in this country works especially in a place like Anambra State. Tomorrow I dare anyone to ask me why majority of every young person that I have spoken to wants to work and settle in another state or city.