Sorious Samura: Commitment And Voyeurism

On a trip to war-wracked Vietnam in the 1950s—the country was then enmeshed in a bloody anti-colonial war pitting patriotic Vietnamese against the French—the English writer Graham Greene had one of his mordantly conflicted moments. Boarding a plane at the military airport at Hanoi for Dien Bien Phu (which would later be the scene of the most decisive battle of the war), Greene saw among the passengers “two photographers in camouflaged uniforms.” These men, Greene wrote, “seem to me comparable to those men who go hunting big game with cameras alone.” He continued: “I always have a sense of guilt when I am a civilian tourist in the regions of death: after all one does not visit a disaster except to give aid—one feels a voyeur of violence, as I felt during the attack two years ago on Phat Diem…I told myself then that I hated war, and yet here I was back—an old voyeur at his tricks again.”

We are happy that Greene returned to Vietnam again and again, for out of those trips—in addition to very incisive articles he published on the war in the London Times and the Spectator magazine—emerged the wonderfully prescient and delightful novel, A Quiet American, which so accurately predicted the foolish American takeover of the Vietnam War from the French.

I immediately thought of Greene’s anguished reflections after watching Sorious Samura’s recent documentary, Living with Refugees, on BBC Channel Four in London in December 2004. Samura, a Sierra Leonean photo-journalist, is a famous man in London, where he lives. His debut documentary, Cry Freetown, won many prestigious awards, including the Rory Peck Award 1999. The documentary was memorable. It showed the Sierra Leone war (which began in 1991 and officially ended in 2002) in its lurid nastiness, not to say pointlessness. Samura had not gone there to see for himself: he was living in Freetown then, was caught in the fighting, and he bravely took the pictures while hiding. I had my criticism of Cry Freetown at the time it came out, but it would be completely churlish of anyone to deny its morbid power, as well as Samura’s bravery and passion to tell a much neglected, but profoundly important, story. The documentary deserves all the praises and all the awards.

I met Samura not long after the documentary’s release. He was then living in London. He had become so famous that a London publisher with whom I had lunch was desperate to have the two of us ‘connected’ (his words). Apparently, both the publisher and Samura had read a short review of Cry Freetown I had written, in which I criticized aspects of the documentary. The publisher gave me Samura’s number. I called Samura the next day. He sounded extremely friendly, and said he would immediately visit me. I was then living in a crummy apartment in Southeast London with a friend, but never mind. Samura came over, and, along with two of my friends (Isaac Massaquoi and Kingsley Lington), we drove in his car to town. He mentioned the review—which had criticized the documentary for not showing actual scenes of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) brutality, concentrating only on violence by Ecomog: I thought this indicated that Samura started taking the pictures after he was safely relocated in an area that Eomog had taken over from the RUF—and he noted that his editors at Insight, which produced the documentary, had excised some of the most ghastly pictures, and these were mainly those showing RUF handiwork. I felt privileged to be told this, even though Samura had said something similar on TV and elsewhere. It was all friendly chat, and we exchanged cards.

Samura next issued Exodus, which is a 45-minute documentary about Africans giving up all hopes, as the blurb on Insight’s website charmingly puts it, “of their continent offering them a decent future – or indeed a future of any kind. These people head for the West with no proper documentation, with the worst means of transportation and are at best aiming for a bizarre and dangerous means of entry into an unknown land.” I do not particularly like Exodus—it seems to me a little reductive, presenting the issue as though dangerous migration journeys are a distinctly African phenomenon, when in fact there are probably more Chinese illegally entering North America by boat across the Pacific than there are Africans entering the West, legally or illegally, every year—but the documentary has real value, and might have been an eye-opener for some people. Return to Freetown, a sequel to Cry Freetown, is far better. By simply tracing some of the child victims of the Sierra Leone war he highlights in Cry Freetown, showing them gradually returning to the fold of normal society, Samura very effectively demonstrates the foolishness of the war that had ravaged his country, and indeed the cruelties and dementia of rebel warfare, particularly its sick methodology of child soldiery. Again, nothing particularly spectacular, but the documentary is satisfying in its own way.

In 2003, however, Samura began to experiment with a new, but not so new, form: he produced Living With Hunger (Surviving Hunger), in which he lived for a month in a hut in a remote Ethiopian village, sharing the meager food and bare living of the other villagers. I watched this documentary twice when it came out but still does not understand the point of it. It must have pleased some people, including Samura’s producers at Insight, however, for the following year Samura was off to Chad, there to live for a month with refugees fleeing the depredations of the Janjawiid militia in Darfur. The result is Living with Refugees. This is how Insight describes it all on its website:

“Award-winning journalist Sorious Samura is increasingly gaining a reputation for a new kind of journalism which not many others can do. It’s ‘real’ reality TV – stories that offer a unique perspective into the lives of people facing terrible situations. On this journey he set out to become, for all intents and purposes, a refugee. He traveled to Chad to live with a family in a refugee camp for one month. He lived under exactly the same conditions, eating what they ate, drinking what they drank. Sorious built close intimate relationships with the people in this situation sharing their hopes and fears. This film provides a unique insight into what life is really like for a refugee.”

‘A new kind of journalism’: this is obviously highly optimistic. The idea of living, or pretending to live, lives of people one is writing about or documenting—what the late Hunter Thompson called ‘gonzo journalism’—is an old eccentricity. Lawrence of Arabia did it to great effect, penetrating a culture that was then seen as mysterious to Westerners; Thompson as well did it very well. At best it can lead to effective ventriloquism, as in the case of some of Thompson’s writing, in particular his book about the raucous bikers, Hell’s Angels.

Samura, as well, is high-minded in his practice of the genre. He told a Time magazine writer—who wrote a laudatory piece on him recently—that what he is doing is representing ‘the innocents’: “Who is telling their story? I want to represent them.”

I decided to write this piece immediately after reading this statement: It is all very well for an artist or writer to do his thing only to make money or to entertain: High-mindedness attracts suspicion and scrutiny. So, to return to my earlier difficulty: exactly what does Living with Hunger tell you about starving people? Or Living with Refugees about refugees living in an impoverished, bleak Sahelian nullity like the part of Chad that the Darfur refugees live almost abandoned?

The promotional blurb on Insight’s website attempts to answer the second question: “Through Sorious video diaries and the filming of the crew who shadowed him throughout his experiences…we see the life of a refugee as it’s never been seen before. It’s a first, an exclusive and a must-see film for anyone wishing to truly understand what it is like to be a refugee.” Really?

Self-denial has always had an obvious appeal: we admire Gandhi partly because of his principled renunciation. But there is something distinctly creepy about a famous man living in a rich country traveling to some backwoods place and pretending to share the miseries of the poorest of the poor, only to get richly rewarded for it. The sense of voyeur instantly suggests itself.

Am I reading too much into this matter? Perhaps; but I knew all along, thanks, that to lack adequate food, going hungry, is a most excruciating experience; even without experiencing it, I know that to be driven from ones home into an arid land as a refugee is thoroughly hellish. Does one need to survive tsunami to know it was a most horrendous disaster?

Yet Living with Refugees does reveal a few interesting facts: about the bureaucratic ineptitude of relief administration, in particular those of the UN; the corruption of local officials etc. Very well. But what exactly is the context of all of these? To watch only this documentary is to go away with the impression that the whole mess is a mysterious humanitarian disaster. We hear little about the war, the Janjawiid terror gangs, the demented regime in Khartoum, the efforts of the AU and the UN to end the fighting, the various militia groups….

Indeed this kind of journalism is really not new. It is an idiosyncratic form perfected by the British. Jonathan Dimbleby became notorious for showing, on the BBC, the famine in Ethiopia under Haile Sellasie without showing the war fuelling that famine, thus succeeding in undermining the government so completely that it was soon after overthrown. The same was earlier done with respect to Biafra…

Samura is no Dimbleby, and his concern about the plight and dereliction of Africa and Africans is utterly genuine. Still, I wonder how these—his two latest, and least elegant, efforts—advance his determination to, as he puts it with no hint of irony, ‘represent the innocents.’

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