Images of Violence

The day after interviewing Julius Spencer, the then Minister of Information, a man ran after me in the corridor of the ministry and queried, “I heard that you are making a film on my country, I have some footage I want to show you.”

As I explained in the description of the shooting, we were very nervous about the government and military finding out that we were not making a “humanitarian” movie. During the shoot, we had to minimize contact as well as those we suspected were working “undercover”. Therefore my answer was a very “we don’t need footage, thank you.”

The man insisted so much that I figured he wanted money so I explained that we had a very small budget that we couldn’t afford to buy footage. He kept insisting and finally convinced me that he wasn’t after money or fame that he only wanted to show us footage. His persistence convinced me that there must be something there so I agreed to have him show us his footage. It would only happen in the Action Against Hunger’s house and with everybody in the team being around.

He came as agreed to the house with his equipment and tapes. He showed us hours of the most horrible images that I ever seen in my life: torture, mutilations, summary executions, people dying from gunshots or bomb explosions, cadavers etc. One of my crewmembers had to rush to the bathroom to throw up while another started screaming at the top of his lungs that we never could use such graphic, horrific images.

The worst part was that most of these killings and tortures were not done by the rebels but by the Sierra Leone army, the Ecomog peacekeepers and other forces loyal to the government with only a very small portion attributable to the rebels.

So I turned towards the man and asked him who he was and why was he showing us these images, which were exactly the proof that we had been looking for for weeks. His name was Sorius Samura and he was a government cameraman, hired to document the war from the government’s point of view. In other words, these images were the government archives that he had been recording for years.

After hearing this, I asked him why he would show foreigners these classified images when he was an employee of the government. His answer was: “If you promise to tell the world what’s going on in my country, I will give you these images.” This was a shocking statement. It was clear that if this man gave us this footage, he would either have to leave the country or he would immediately be put into jail - or worse. He told me very calmly that if I agreed to use his images and tell the world “what was going on” he would leave the country.

The man was absolutely devastated by what he had seen and documented during the war. So much so, he couldn’t sleep at night. He could only sleep for a couple of hours in the morning and in the afternoon. According to him, the worst past was not what he had seen but what he had felt about documenting all these atrocities. He felt a deep responsibility for some of these killings, thinking that some wouldn’t have had happened if he had not been there with a camera, involuntarily encouraging the soldiers to show off. He also felt in some cases that he may have been able to prevent the killing by talking with the soldiers or trying to distract them.

After much discussion I agreed to use his images and to “tell the truth.” Sorius left the country and went to live in London. He became an advisor and associate producer of our film since he was the only person able to identify the victims and the factions responsible for the actions.

The upside of the story is that with his images he was able to make his own documentary, which acquired several awards and praise for him. He is now a well known journalist in UK.

The most difficult part for me was returning to Europe with two hours of this grisly footage and spending months alone in an edit room trying to figure out how much violence was too much for a documentary and how much was necessary to truly convey the suffering of the Sierra Leonean people to a world that was inurned to seeing Africans suffer.

What’s left in the film is four short scenes totaling less than 7 minutes. It’s these images that most people are uncomfortable with when watching the film. In the end, I think it’s an un-comfort that pales in comparison to what the people there had to go through.