Africa Rising: With film school, can Sierra Leone change 'Blood Diamond' image?
The film 'Blood Diamond' scared off tourists and investors. Now Sierra Leoneons want to tell their own stories in film, and Ahmed Mansaray has a film school to show them how.
Freetown, Sierra Leone
• Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Pick your way down a crowded street clogged with motorbike taxis and stray dogs. Walk past the women hawking flip-flops and little baggies of plantain chips. Step over an open gutter and through a low, unmarked doorway. Round a few unlit corners, then walk up a narrow set of stairs – and you’ve arrived.
Welcome to Hollywood, Sierra Leone style.
This small West African country has only one Western-style movie theater, but as of August it is now home to its very own film school. From his humble offices here amid the hustle of Freetown, the school’s director aims to train young Sierra Leoneans to create their own films. In the long run, he hopes the country’s homegrown movie industry might transform Sierra Leone’s battered image overseas.
“Sierra Leoneans have a lot of stories to tell,” says Ahmed Mansaray, the film school’s founding director. But today “most of the stories are being told [through] the binoculars of the white man.”
“We want to see Sierra Leoneans producing very good movies,” Mr. Mansaray adds, “and we want to see people telling their stories.”
For many in the West, Sierra Leone remains the land of blood diamonds and drugged-up child soldiers, even though the country has been at peace for nearly a decade.
A Hollywood film – the 2006 thriller "Blood Diamond," which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly – helped crystallize that image for many overseas. The movie offered a bloody depiction of the conflict that ravaged Sierra Leone for most of the 1990s, but most of the filming was actually done more than 3,000 miles away in Mozambique.
“It annoyed us,” Mansaray says of "Blood Diamond." “No Sierra Leonean was ever consulted.”
At a time when Sierra Leone was desperately looking to rebrand itself, the film scared off tourists and drove away investors, he adds. Sierra Leone’s new film industry – Sierrawood, as Mansaray likes to call it – will aim to erase those negative images and give the country a new face overseas.
“Ten years from now, we will beat Nollywood in terms of production, in terms of quality pictures,” he adds, referring to Nigeria’s film industry, which is now Africa’s biggest.
If there’s an African Hollywood type, Mansaray fits it to a tee: He wears a black suit, a gold-colored shirt, and a dapper hat tipped high on the back of his head. He has a quick smile and an easy manner – the air of a man who could make a killer elevator pitch.