Kate Glinsman speaks to our very own Director Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. about the latest Rice N Peas documentary, Man Dem Nor Glady’O and discovers his motivations for telling the stories others ignore.
What is your latest documentary about and why have you decided to make yet another documentary in Sierra Leone?
Man Dem Nor Glady’O which is Creole for The People Are Not Happy, is a documentary about how the United Nations and other international supporting bodies dealt with the consequences of war in Sierra Leone but failed to deal with the causes. So although the guns are presently silent, the issues of poverty, corruption and bad governance are still endemic and may yet again be the igniting factors of a future conflict. I returned to do this story as I was dissatisfied with the restrictions placed on me by the BBC when I made Blood Diamonds in 2001 and did not feel justice was done to that story. They wanted a story about diamonds and I wanted a story about why the war started. The editorial compromise was that I would fuse the two ideas together and tell the story of both. I was the first Western journalist to report behind rebel lines in the RUF’s stronghold of Kono; however, upon my return, the BBC dishonourably reneged on our agreement, excluded me from the editorial direction of the story, and put out a story solely about diamonds. I returned to make the story I wished to make originally and in the process correct some of the fallacies that have permeated the public’s perceptions about Sierra Leone: namely that this was a war fought for control of diamonds. The war in Sierra Leone began as a campaign to eradicate the corrupt and inept practices that had forced this mineral rich nation to the bottom of the international development chart. It later mutated into an anarchic free-for-all, governed by complex variables of factional and tribal loyalties.
Why would the media, especially a source as respected as the BBC, do this?
I have a series of speculative assumptions which I think it would be unfair to share here as they are just that: speculative. However, it is my belief that they find it much easier to present simple sound-bytes to the viewing public. It is rare to see documentaries that really penetrate the surface of the stories they are trying to tell; very often the media updates stories that are already in the public domain, without really adding anything fresh or of any substance to them. So, the conflict between Israel and Palestine more often than not becomes a story of “Palestinian terrorism” vs. “Israeli retaliation” and the complexities of the Sierra Leone conflict becomes simplified as a war for diamonds. They very rarely get to the nuts and bolts of a story. It may also be that I wanted to tell a story that just did not fit their style; they are very rigid about what they want and resolute about hitting what they are aiming for. To me, working to such strict mandates is like being put in a strait-jacket and asked to swim butterfly stroke across the Thames.
What do you believe you have accomplished with your latest film? What should we expect?
More than anything, I believe this documentary follows in the tradition of our previous documentaries, giving voice to the ordinary people and allowing them to articulate their experiences; that to me is the greatest accomplishment. Watching news reports about Africa generally makes me cringe, as it seems only whites are used to relay the sufferings of the people; why is it that whites are presented as the experts on hunger or some other African catastrophe when there is a horde of starving people standing in the background? Can’t they articulate the effects of gut-wrenching hunger themselves? Where is the commentary from African experts, academics and intellectuals about the problems of their continent? Africans are presented merely as a backdrop to their own stories. I am fed up with Africa being framed through the eyes of Tarzan. In this documentary you will hear ordinary, intelligent and articulate Africans discussing their condition and suggesting their solutions. The film also features the 2007 presidential candidates, including the Vice President Soloman Berewa who we challenge to answer the question: How can a country endowed with so many natural minerals and resources be at the bottom of the international development chart?
Why have you chosen Man Dem Nor Glady'O as the title of your film?
Man Dem Nor Glady’O is Creole or Patois as it is known in the Caribbean. It means “The People Are Not Happy” in English. It’s something you hear people saying quite a lot in Sierra Leone; it’s a common statement often said to voice their discontentment about their current situation. I thought it was the most appropriate title, given the subject matter. I’m releasing the film under its Creole title because I can. This is one of the beautiful things about being totally independent; we don’t have to shape our product to suit the market demands. I’m sure we may get more interest if we release the film under the English title “The People Are Not Happy,” but I’m ecstatic about releasing a film under a title of which most Africans and people from the Caribbean can instantly identify. I don’t see Western film titles translated into African dialects to suite the African market, so “mek di bomboclart market gwaan.”
Why do you choose issues from such an international spectrum?
The world is a vast tapestry of experiences. I’ve always considered myself a tourist in this life, just floating in and out of other people’s realities with a camera. I remember in the early 90s, shortly after the war started in Sierra Leone, witnessing some disturbing incidents and then flying back to London and realising that the space I had just occupied was temporary for me, but for the people I had left behind it was a permanent reality. If Sorious Samora had not made Cry Freetown, would the western public even know where Sierra Leone is? Sorious’s documentary wasn’t about diamonds; it was about the people, the suffering, the casual disregard for life. These types of films raise public awareness to the plight, suffering, and experiences of others. I believe documenting the experiences of others and exposing that helps people to understand and form ideas and opinions of their own. I also think that we at Rice N Peas bring a fresh flavour to the table with our style of storytelling; somewhere between two extreme views lies a rational argument. It’s finding that argument without bias or prejudice that we search for and which has become a hallmark of our films. Seeing people’s stories on film in general is also very motivational, as well as spiritually rewarding.
What do you feel are the benefits of being independent film makers and wouldn't it be easier working by commission?
The fact that our documentaries are not commissioned only serves to make us stronger. A commission is not the litmus test of a good documentary. We make films that people want to see. Every Rice N Peas screening we have hosted ourselves has been sold out. We have screened at venues such as the ICA, V&A, and Canning House, as well as hundreds of independent cinemas and centres across the country and around the world. Our last film Hasta Siempre was purchased by the foreign office to be used in the training of overseas diplomats to Latin America. Rene Monzote, a diplomat from the Cuban Embassy, described that film as the most balanced documentary he had seen about Cuba. He took four copies, one for Fidel Castro and several to be distributed to Cuban TV stations; we are currently in the process of having the film broadcast on Cuban television. A Trinidadian station has recently taken our films as well. Roaring Lion was broadcast in Guyana. There is a lot of interest for our films and we are regularly booked to give screenings and host Q&As. It is unfortunate that we are not commissioned, but that is really our fault, we very rarely submit our ideas. Perhaps that's down to suspicion of the industry, either way we're not going to get commissioned if we don't begin submitting our ideas. At the moment we enjoy what we do and so will continue to do it, commission or no commission. Having worked as a freelancer for the mainstream media in the past, I have too often been confronted with corporations who want to tell the world’s stories their way. These are people who will write the big cheques, but who also, too often, throw integrity, honesty and objectivity out the door. I feel a great sense of freedom being able to produce our documentaries independently.
Rice N Peas seems to offer itself as an alternative form of media; do you not feel other mainstream media sources offer a credible source of information?
The mainstream are very arrogant in their assumption that without them a story cannot be told. Advancements in technology have changed the old rules and is beginning to level out the playing field. I think many people are beginning to have doubts about the credibility of news and information in the mainstream, especially when they do not see their stories accurately or fairly represented. However in saying that, there are some great individuals working within the mainstream. Sue Caro, the BBC’s Diversity Manager, comes to mind. I find her honest, straight-talking and genuinely interested in diversifying the BBC’s output. I have more confidence in her as a person than I do in the BBC as an institution. I think that sums it up; I have confidence in the individual and not the collective body.
How is it possible to produce the documentaries you do without commissions?
We own the rights to our films, so we sell broadcast licenses. In addition, we manufacture and distribute our DVDs online; that has proven to be very successful and profitable. By cutting out the middle man, we have been able to maximise our profits that are, in turn, reinvested into our films. We also have a brilliant team of individuals who are all loyal to the vision of Rice N Peas and committed to producing the best product possible. Our main editor, Catherine Arend, has been with us for the past five years; we met at the BBC where she was working as an editor and hit it off straight away. Both as an editor and as a human being she is amazing; our rice would have no peas without Catherine. We also have two brothers, Yannis and Sean Mendez, who have been with us for three years; they are the foundation of the company, Niles Hailstones has been with us for four years and is responsible for our music. And on the website side of things, we have Jill Bolstridge, our New York based Sub-Editor. We also have a team of part-time staff who are all equally indispensable to our operation. These are the people who make it possible without a commission.
So what are your plans for the future? Where do you hope to take Rice N Peas Films?
At the moment, we’re just joy riding, buzzing from the adrenalin rush we get every time we finish a film. For over two years, we have discussed doing a story in Australia about Aboriginal communities and what they have lost. We are hoping to have that done within the next 12 months. A story I feel very strongly about is the current hysteria surrounding Islam and the weak evidence being used to convict young Muslim men suspected of terrorism. This story I feel is very pressing, so we are currently in the research stages of that and hopefully we can get something cooking around September. It is very difficult as we are restricted by a limited cash flow, so very often our ideas have to be planned and saved for, sometimes years in advance. We currently have a member of our team in Cuba researching another possible story idea about the Afro-Cuban religion Santaria and another team member will be off to Venezuela later in the year to examine the social policies of President Hugo Chavez. So, we have quite a few pots simmering on the stove. Really, we’re just enjoying the ride, putting our foot on the gas, and trying to gain as much ground as possible; there are many stories begging to be told.
Man Dem Nor Glady'O premieres at the Tricycle Cinema on 11th August 8:30pm.
For tickets: 0207 328 1000
Rice N Peas events are always over subscribed so please book early to avoid disappointment.
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