The Love of Home
Review: Liberia: The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here
|Gerald Barclay with Liberian refugees in Ghana.|
I'm Atlanta born and raised. For the last three-plus decades it's been my home. I remember a first grade field trip to the recently built Hartsfield Airport . I remember visiting the Mayfield Dairy when it was still here. There were the trips to Stone Mountain, the Atlanta Symphony, Sunday dinners at Paschal's, roller skating and swimming at Piedmont Park, seeing my first play at the Woodruff Arts Center and my favorite of favorites, going to the Fernbank Science Center. It's at these places that I discovered my love of people, language and music, and developed a deep pride in and love for my city.
So when Gerald Barclay stands atop the once world class Ducor Palace Hotel in Monrovia, Liberia, and scans a horizon he hadn't called home in 24 years, it's easy to identify with what he's feeling. When he visits, as he describes it, "the dark and empty space" of the E.J. Roye Cultural Building and reminisces about the days when he was first introduced to his cultural heritage, I understand his loss.
Barclay hadn't intended to make the documentary Liberia: The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here when he returned to Africa in 2001. He had been hired to produce a documentary on African hip-hop, and it was only during what was supposed to have been a 45-minute visit with a relative in Ghana that he found dozens of Liberian refugees who were desperate to speak with him. Pulling him aside, they described a camp—the United Nations having long since pulled its support—that was short of jobs and supplies. Some asked nothing more than for Barclay to send word to families in the U.S. that they were okay.
What resulted from those encounters is a deeply personal account of a nation and a people who are, after two decades of unrest and violence, still in search of home.
Although Liberia is told very much from Barclay's point of view, I wish he had pushed deeper and delved into his family's personal journey. I was curious about what it must have been like to make the difficult decision to leave the only home they had ever known; I also would have like to see how living in the States for the last two decades has shaded their views of the conflict there.
There is a point early in the film when Barclay interviews a Liberian woman living in the U.S., who poignantly asks how expatriated Liberians can celebrate Liberia's founding and can enjoy living in relative comfort when there's so much turmoil at home. While Barclay offers us some answers, in the end it feels as though her indictment goes unanswered.
Interweaving his family's story would have illustrated that such a challenge, while in itself is easy to make, always elicits complex and sometimes difficult to articulate answers. Barclay's own regret at what he's lost and the realization that Liberia has always been his true home is a powerful testimony to that. While from the outside looking in the path seems clear, it never truly is, and as result people make the best choices they can. Only with hindsight can we see where the path has taken us. Barclay offers us a powerful example when he introduces us to the story of Joshua Milton Blahyi.
Once known as "General Butt Naked," Blahyi is a self-proclaimed murder who admits to killing over 10,000 people—even eating his victims to gain spiritual power and strength. He's the part of Liberia's past that demonstrates the pain and damage that has been inflicted on the country's soul. The question is raised whether it is possible to forgive Blahyi. More importantly, it's asked if Liberians can move past the evil he has done and concentrate on the work ahead. Even Barclay himself admits that Blahyi's story challenges his very beliefs.
One of the first steps Nelson Mandela took in healing the wounds of apartheid was immediately beginning a dialogue. He encouraged an open and honest discussion because he understood that apartheid wasn't just a national tragedy, it was a force that inflicted wounds on every individual—and on each one of them differently. While nations may be able to move on, the people that make them up will be forever marked with the scars and memories of what they endured.
There are those who say most conflicts are the failure to heal old wounds. It's ironically Blahyi, a man who along with former President Charles Taylor has done so much harm, who articulately expounds on that.
"If [Liberians] don't change and if they don't develop themselves…the complex will make them build a defense system which will go against democracy. And every nation that abuses the interest of the masses. The masses will get tired one day. And they will rise up again."
What makes a documentary truly satisfying is when, on subsequent viewings, a piece of dialogue that once sounded innocuous suddenly carries new meaning. Much like in narrative pieces, characters on reflection become more nuanced and are revealed to be mirror-images of our truer selves.
Having watched this film before the elections and again afterwards, I can only hope that with the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Barclay's Liberia will be a testament to the Liberia that once was—and a glimmer of all that Liberia could once again be.
Charles Judson is a local screen & comic book writer and a regular contributor and film critic for CinemATL.