Photographer and filmmaker Jeff Topham looks a little bewildered to find himself staying in the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney, but with the Possible Worlds Film Festival picking up the tab, including for the beer he’s just ordered, he’s not complaining. The shiny hotel foyer is certainly a far cry from Liberia, the location of Topham’s documentary film, Liberia ’77, which is screening at the festival on Saturday. Liberia ’77 is about Jeff and his brother Andrew returning to Liberia, where they spent part of their childhoods, and discovering a country slowly trying to heal itself after horrendous periods of civil war.
Early in our chat I confess to Topham that for the first ten minutes of the film I was worried that it was going to be another of those inwardly-focused ‘personal journey’ films where it’s all about the internal responses of the filmmaker, missing the wider issues. But soon the film takes a turn and a huge palette of broader stories open up, raising all manner of difficult political and personal questions, and I realise it isn’t that kind of of film at all. Topham nods as I describe my response to the film. “It was something I was super conscious of right off the bat,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the white guy going in to save Africa. Maybe if you don’t get past where it takes a right turn, you might not keep going. But if you stick with it you’re going to get a reward… there’s three story lines.”
Topham’s father took the family from Canada to Liberia for his work with Exchem, a company that manufactured ammunition. The company took their operations out of Liberia when the war got hairy, and Topham’s search for the former Exchem employees forms part of the film. He also searches for James, the local man who looked after the two brothers as children, and who forms such a huge part of his memories of Liberia. Andrew is also particularly keen on revisiting the nearby centre that housed chimpanzees for medical research, having been close to the family’s pet chimp at the time.
The brothers are aided in their searches by a stack of photographs their father took when they lived there, and as they show these pictures to local people, they slowly discover that almost no one has photographs of their own. During the war, families burnt photographs and threw cameras away, lest they be taken as a sign of wealth by the rebels - a sign which was potentially fatal. So while the film does follow the personal experiences of Jeff and Andrew as they continue their searches, these experiences serve to effectively highlight much bigger stories - do we have a responsibility to help? What can one person do when the problems are on such a grand scale? And how does a whole country reconnect with its past?
On a journey to rediscover their childhood the brothers also find a country riven with deep scars, and their attempts to digest the changes and start thinking about some of these bigger questions are a core part of the film. I asked Topham about the tension around directing a film covering events to which he’s also having spontaneous emotional responses. “There wasn’t really any room for self-censorship,” he says. “The hard stuff I had to put on (the film), because that was the good stuff. So I’m not going to cut that out (just) because it’s me… If I had my choice I wouldn’t be on camera at all, but I was the only person who could tell the story.”
Photography and memory are linking themes that weave their way through the film, and one of the things I love about Liberia ’77 is that it offers a really direct and relevant way to get involved. Faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenges of a developing nation getting back on its feet, Jeff and Andrew choose a couple of specific avenues where they can help. A chance meeting (which I won’t spoil with details) gives them an idea for a project to restore the photographic history of Liberia from before the war. They’ve set up a website, www.liberia77.com, where people from all around the world can submit photographs they have of Liberia. “Everyone’s looking for transmedia and cross-platform stuff, and this was a website that actually made sense to accompany the film,” says Topham. “We’ve got some amazing stuff that’s starting to come in. Even if one person sees it at the end and the word spreads. I don’t know what’s going to come of it, but it’s a cool idea, a different idea.” Topham is hoping to return to Liberia next year and take some photographs to the museum, which was completely emptied of its collections during the war. He’ll also show the film, which is now one small piece of the jigsaw of memories that Liberia is slowly reconstructing.
Liberia ’77 is screening this Saturday night at 6:30pm at Dendy Opera Quays. Topham will be there for a Q&A after the film; tickets are available from Dendy.
About this writer
- 2013 Sydney Film Festival: Winners (0)
- 2013 Sydney Film Festival: The Spirit of '45 & We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (0)
- 2013 Sydney Film Festival: Stories We Tell (0)
- 2013 Sydney Film Festival – Narco Cultura, Fuck for Forest & Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (0)
- 2013 Sydney Film Festival – The Human Scale & The Act of Killing (5)
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