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.

Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

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.

“We want to be a very big industry that will provide quality films to the rest of the world,” he says. “We want to see ourselves winning competitions in America and Europe.”

“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.

Mansaray doesn’t have a degree in film studies or movie production, but he’s taken courses in France and Nigeria, and he’s worked on movie sets in Sierra Leone since 2003. He admits that his experience is limited, but he thinks he still has something to contribute.

“As they say, ‘the one-eyed man is a king in the kingdom of the blind,’” he says. “With my experience, I can do a lot.”

Mansaray weaves his way through the film school’s cluttered office, squeezing hands and slapping backs as he gives a visitor a tour of the premises. It only takes a few minutes; there isn’t a whole lot to see.

Housed inside the local Institut de Français, the film school consists of one classroom equipped with tables, chairs and a whiteboard; a small office for Mansaray; and a production room that has two computers – only one of which is working.

“It’s not an ideal place for a movie-making academy,” Mansaray admits. “But then, we can start here, we can start with the classroom at least.”

The school has 32 students, Mansaray says, most of whom are in their twenties and thirties. They’re being taught everything from the nuts and bolts of video production to the delicacies of movie makeup to the fine art of finalizing a script.

The total price for the school’s full 18-month program is about two million leones, or roughly $450. That’s a lot to ask in this country, where a heaping plate of groundnut stew costs just 50 cents, and where two thirds of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. But as expensive as that price tag may seem to many Sierra Leoneans, the $450-a-head fee isn’t enough to sustain the school; Mansaray has to rely on the Institut de Français for help.

“The money the students are paying cannot buy the smallest of cameras, even this one that I have here,” Mansaray says, gesturing to a handheld video camera that sits on his desk. 

That little handheld is currently the school’s only working camera. There were two others – larger cameras that Mansaray had bought with his own money – but both recently broke in the clumsy hands of inexperienced students. So now the school is left with just the one little handheld, although sometimes the school rents equipment from commercial television stations around town.

As limited as its technical resources may be, Sierra Leone’s first film school has drawn a huge response from locals, Mansaray says. People are clamoring to get into the school – even many who have very little education.

“We got a lot of people that came that said, ‘I can’t read, I can’t write, but I want to be part of the film school.… What can your film school do for us?’”

Edward Sankoh is one of those people. A 40-year-old father of four, he works as a night guard in Freetown. He has come by the film school’s office this morning because he wants to enroll in a course.  

“I have some friends who have cameras, and they showed me some of the pictures they’d taken,” he says. “I didn’t know how the camera worked, but they showed me where to press to take a picture.”

Mr. Sankoh says he wants to learn how to be a cameraman. He hopes that someday he might be able to quit his job as a night guard and take pictures instead.

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