For most of the western world, impressions of the battle for Sierra Leone are summed up by two bits of journalistic shorthand: the phrase “conflict diamonds,” a term used to define diamonds mined and marketed by Sierra Leonean rebels which Diaz found so misleading when he examined it that his film never mentions it once; and images of brutally maimed citizens, with limbs ostensibly amputated by members of the radical, anti-imperialist guerilla army known as the Revolutionary United Front.
Diaz makes a not-entirely-persuasive case that these highly publicized mutilations may have been perpetrated by the brutal U.N.-installed ruling government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah (Kabbah certainly exploited the situation for his own political aims). The Empire in Africa is far more convincing when it illustrates how resource-rich Sierra Leone, which suffers from a tremendous inequality of income distribution, remains a shadowy playground for the same European commercial interests that once colonized the African continent, and the film believably illustrates how domestic poverty caused by the exportation of Sierra Leone's indigenous wealth made civil war all but inevitable. Diaz credibly presents the U.N.'s actions in Sierra Leone as an attempt to legitimize a proxy war waged there by Great Britain in order to retain Britain's historical control over Sierra Leone's vast diamond and mineral deposits.
Unbelievably graphic images of atrocities on both sides of the war make The Empire in Africa at times virtually unwatchable. Decapitations are shown, human genitalia are brandished on pikes, and in remarkable video footage apparently shot by the Kabbah government itself, government-sponsored troops torture a child and cold-bloodedly execute unarmed civilians who they suspect of rebel sympathies. There's a fine line here The Empire in Africa doesn't even attempt to walk; for every person the film persuades with its brutal embodiment of a brutal reality, the film stands to provoke an offsetting walkout, which is a ratio Diaz seems more than willing to live with. Diaz's point is a polemical one, and as such, he feels a greater responsibility to the immediacy this footage lends to Sierra Leone's horrific reality than he does to the protection of audience sensibilities.
As anyone knows who has been able to withstand a viewing of the images and video that continue to emerge from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, the business of war is a savage one. Still, it's possible to admire
The Empire in Africa
and even to respond to its disturbing power while wishing Diaz could have found less visceral and sanguinary means to put his message across.
The Empire in Africa
won the documentary jury prize at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival, and is essential viewing for anyone interested in the political realities hinted at by movies like
The Constant Gardener. It remains an open question, though, whether even adventurous viewers will feel more brutalized or enlightened by what they see.
Distributor: Cinema Libre
Narrator: Richie Havens
Director/Producer: Philippe Diaz
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 87 min.
Release date: December 8, 2006 NY/LA/Madison, Wis.