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Movie Review

‘A Culture of Silence’ speaks for Sierra Leone

Writer and co-director Raouf J. Jacob traces life in his homeland of Sierra Leone in the aftermath of what he calls “the most barbaric civil war in history.”
Writer and co-director Raouf J. Jacob traces life in his homeland of Sierra Leone in the aftermath of what he calls “the most barbaric civil war in history.” (Worldwide Cinema FRAMES)

For most people, the sufferings of African countries such as Sierra Leone, which has endured a hellish civil war only to be confronted with the Ebola epidemic, are regarded as passing news items.

For the documentary filmmaker Raouf J. Jacob, however, Sierra Leone is his beloved homeland. Forced to emigrate to America with his family in 1999 in the midst of the internecine conflict, he returns in “A Culture of Silence” to the place of his birth to see how it has rebounded from its bloody past. He and his partner and fellow filmmaker Lara M. Moreno tour the country with their camera to see how it has confronted its intransigent problems. These include poverty, the exploitation of resources by foreign corporations, cultural misogyny epitomized by the practice of female genital mutilation, and the legacy of war embodied by its most tragic victims — child soldiers kidnapped by warlords and forced to kill.

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It’s a big task, and sadly, Jacob is not equal to it. Perhaps because the subject is so close to his personal experience, the film suffers from poor organization, a melodramatic tone (the more extreme the subject, the less it needs rhetorical amplification), and, ironically for a film about silence, too much voice-over narration. Jacob’s sometimes prolix and cliché-ridden remarks repeat what is seen on the screen or reduce it to generalities and platitudes.

Nonetheless, he establishes the gravity of the subject from the beginning and even when the filmmaking falters, that poignancy remains. In short order he relates the origins of the country’s troubles — the 1991 rebellion by the Revolutionary United Front that dragged on until 2002. “The most barbaric civil war in history,” as Jacob describes it, with tens of thousands murdered and countless atrocities. The horrific archival footage of summary executions, corpses feasted on by vultures, and children whose limbs have been chopped off, in many cases, by other children, speaks for itself.

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After such enormities, Jacob’s tour of Sierra Leone, though heartfelt, can seem superficial and overly rosy. He and Moreno try to gain access to a foreign-owned diamond mine, they interview the current president, they talk with former child soldiers, and meet with a woman leading a crusade against genital mutilation. All compelling topics, but the filmmakers depict each encounter more as a stage in their “journey” than on its own terms.

They also express an unwarranted optimism. After we have heard the accounts of rape, mutilation, and murder perpetrated by child soldiers, and witnessed a prepubescent girl undergo the agony of ritual maiming, Jacob’s concluding image of smiling kids and his assertion that “poverty is conquered by faces of hope — the children of Africa” suggest that in “Culture of Silence” the whole truth of Sierra Leone’s tragedy remains unspoken.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.