Skulls. Cannibalism. Violent orphans without regard for life, stumbling amidst crowds of hostile, dangerous natives. Psychotic villains from prehistoric jungle tribes who rape, torture, and kill without conscience. The pervasive acridity of lawlessness and apathy; horrifying poverty punctuated by a murderer’s sincerity. Above such a hell, the imposing visage of a brutal African merchant of death, whose avariciousness and cruelty shocks the Western conscience and demands a justice that can only be dispensed in a European courtroom. While one can easily imagine such representations of Africa displayed in an anthropological photo-exhibit in Victorian London, they are in fact images of the small country of Liberia that have appeared over the past two years in Western press outlets.
Without question, Liberia’s recent history has been tortured and painful. Nearly two decades of civil war left hundreds of thousands dead, wrecked the country’s economy, and precipitated a United Nations peacekeeping mission that has cost the world nearly US$500 million dollars per year since its deployment in 2003. It is not difficult for a journalist or documentary filmmaker to find tales of horror and suffering in Liberia. Undoubtedly, these images are potent and ravenously consumed by a Western public that often seems eager to hear stories of barbarism in Africa.
Yet, by strengthening ugly discourses of the continent as a savage, dangerous locale with limited social self-awareness, manipulated by homegrown mafia-style warlords and in need of enlightened Western administration, these irresponsible and shallow narratives can be profoundly harmful. By selectively interpreting history, media reports about countries like Liberia can construct a reality in the Western mind that has real consequences for their future and the lives of their citizens.
Roger Silverstone, a media critic, observed that media frameworks “define the moral space within which the other appears to us, and invite an equivalent moral response from us.” The way we see others on the myriad of screens we spend our lives staring at matters; it determines how we perceive difference and familiarity, and hence our feelings of empathy. In helping to establish popular discourses about the world beyond our borders, documentaries like Vice’s can have real world effects, particularly when the subject is a small, relatively powerless country, rich in natural resources, reconstituting its society after years of war.
The “Vice Travel Guide to Liberia” opens with the documentary’s protagonist, an American man in his early 30s, wading barefoot through a swamp with a stocky Liberian man. He asks his guide, “So they call you General Butt Naked?” The man affirms this, telling the journalist of a ritual he often performed during the country’s civil war that involved killing a child and drinking its blood. The shot cuts to stock footage of a young Liberian holding a human heart; next, another young man fires an automatic rifle and a group of children dance with a skull in their hands. The title screen flashes, and the journalist launches into a brief – and highly inaccurate – narrative of the country’s history. He describes the civil war as a “post-apocalyptic Armageddon, with child soldiers smoking heroin, cross-dressing cannibals, and systematic rape. Total hell on earth.” In the background, African drums play at a fast tempo and images of battle and atrocity careen across the screen. Less than five minutes into the documentary, the filmmakers have draped their arm around the viewer and transmitted a very clear message: This place is not like home in a very, very bad way.
Owing in large part to its sensationalized depiction of the country as a ticking time-bomb on the edge of a slide back to atrocity, the “Vice Guide” is almost certainly the most widely viewed documentary on Liberia in the Western world. Produced in 2010, it is the first result in a Google search of “Liberia documentary,” and has nearly 500,000 views on YouTube – far more than any other piece of reporting or commentary on the country. It is an installment in a larger series where journalists from Vice Magazine online – an outlet that caters to a young Western crowd – travel the Global South in search of oddities and the extreme.
The Liberia episode was widely acclaimed, winning a “Webby” award and garnering favorable reviews from CNN and other mainstream outlets. It also traffics in some of the ugliest stereotypes of Africa that one can imagine, drawing from discourses of the continent’s savagery and backwardness to such a pervasive extent that one wonders if its producers were at all cognizant of the colonialist lineage in which such portrayals are firmly planted.
In the course of the documentary, the filmmakers bribe a prison official on camera to release a former rebel commander for an interview, film a 14-year-old boy smoking cocaine in Monrovia’s notorious West Point slum, and are forced to flee after they anger a group of sex workers during an interview in a brothel. In one particularly revealing moment, the journalist and his crew cut an interview short after noticing “heavy duty vibes” by “sketchy dudes” in the neighborhood where they are filming. A shot of the offenders, however, appears to show no more than a crowd of curious bystanders, no doubt interested in the foreign film crew interviewing a notorious war criminal next door. In the absence of a clear explanation for the crew’s reaction, the viewer is asked to assume this crowd is “sketchy” simply because they are black and African and poor.
The implied purpose of the documentary is entertainment – Vice’s coverage of the West is typically limited to fashion, party culture, and music. From one point of view, a piece of vapid travel journalism from an outlet widely known for publishing sarcastic articles about Anglo-American pop culture might not deserve serious analysis and critique. “Real” news, after all, comes from more serious outlets. The problem is that this view ignores the way we’ve come to consume information in the internet age. In the United States, entertainment-as-political-commentary has rapidly gained popularity, with programs such as “The Daily Show” and cable talk shows toeing the edge between informing and amusing. For a generation immersed in social media, instant entertainment availability, and overwhelming choice of news content, production value can often determine how widely a broadcast is watched. Viral videos like “Kony2012” and the “Vice Guide” may represent the only moment that a country like Uganda or Liberia crosses our consciousness.
However, just because the presentation is new doesn’t mean the ideas are as well, and in the case of the “Vice Guide,” the discourse at play is far too familiar; African savagery, tribalism, and the absence of civilized values are ideas that first emerged partly as a means of establishing progressive modernism and whiteness as the standard of normalcy in the European mind. Ideologically, such discourses find their most comfortable home in the belief that the world’s poorer nations do not inherently possess the qualities needed to build a stable modern state, and must thus be guided through the process in a form of paternalism that in its purest form once manifested as colonialism.
This is not to say that much of what Vice covers in its documentary is inaccurate. The Liberian civil war was indeed a horrific event, and practices such as cannibalism and human sacrifice have been well-documented as true. Child soldiers did use drugs, rape was extensive, and the periods where fighting took place in the country’s capital were certainly terrifying episodes of violence and horror. The issue is this: most of that fighting took place over seven years before Vice became interested in the country; thus, the purpose is not to inform viewers of current events, but to point, wide-eyed and gawking, at the spectacle of an alien culture’s manifestation of group violence. How does Gettysburg or Hiroshima appear to a Liberian?
The argument that “it’s just entertainment!” doesn’t fly. The Liberia I spent time in had its share of amputees and ex-combatants, but it also had expansive beach vistas, raucous nightclubs, and bright, charming people struggling to rebuild their society. Yes, poverty is extreme and overwhelming, but there are also lawyers, journalists, schoolteachers, and taxi drivers in Monrovia. How is it that the Vice team could only find former warlords and child prostitutes? Of course, they are there, situated firmly in the complex society that is modern Liberia, but there is something crass and irresponsible about using them as a spectacle to entertain people.
For someone lightly versed in Liberian history, just as troubling as the “Vice Guide”s revelry in ugly stereotypes is their butchering of the country’s past. The mono-narrative repeated not just by Vice, but by most media outlets goes something like this: the Americo-Liberians, freed from slavery in the United States, promptly “enslaved” the country’s indigenous population, a state of affairs that ended when Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe staged a coup in 1980. (Vice erroneously refers to his “election,” when in fact he executed the country’s President in his bedroom and then shot 13 members of his cabinet). The war in Liberia began, according to most accounts, at the hands of Charles Taylor and his rebel army a decade later.
While Taylor’s invasion was undoubtedly the catalyst that began Liberia’s unraveling, the fractured social dynamics in the country have a deep history, intimately influenced by geopolitical and trade concerns in the West. The country was administered for the first two decades of its existence by white Americans; the city of Monrovia was founded on land that was obtained from a local chief at gunpoint. Later, Britain threatened to annex the country unless it “pacified” rural indigenous tribes and established control over its borders; to help, they created and trained a paramilitary force called the “Liberia Frontier Force.” This unit was told to obtain its salaries through looting, and it eventually became the Armed Forces of Liberia — allies of the faction that General Butt Naked himself fought for.
Later, the Firestone Rubber Company was implicated in a scandal involving the AFL’s forced conscription of laborers for its plantation — a stretch of land spanning tens of thousands of acres which still exists today. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described a culture of theft and excess in government, with American and British companies profiting highly from lucrative natural resource contracts, paying kickbacks to government officials while the countryside languished in poverty. By the time Doe took power, the country was a tinderbox waiting to burn.
In the late 1980s, Charles Taylor mysteriously escaped in broad daylight from a Massachusetts prison and made his way to Libya to purchase weapons and training. The United States government admitted earlier this year that he was a paid CIA informant during this period, confirming what Liberians had long suspected to be true. The issue of Taylor’s backing is a sensitive one; many in Liberia believe he often acted at the behest of foreigners. Whether or not the US was ever in a position to dissuade Taylor from his invasion, it is difficult to assign blame for the wars in either Liberia or Sierra Leone entirely to him. Both countries were ruled by corrupt governments benefiting from Western backing, and political dissatisfaction among their citizens was widespread.
What is puzzling, given such context, is why the international media has assigned blame so directly to Taylor for the region’s wars. Whether the explanation can be found in a press corps too disinterested in the country and its history to conduct thorough research, or in a pattern of ideologically edited content is unclear. What is not unclear, however, is that the impact of telling such a simplistic story is unfair to Liberians, who appear to the outsider to be a dangerous, volatile people who are quick to jump to war. Refusing to acknowledge the impact that foreign money and power has had in the country’s development is a disservice to historical clarity, and reinforces the quality of inexplicability that permeates Western thinking about Africa.
In the midst of these questionable and incomplete representations, however, there has also been humanizing and well-crafted coverage. The common thread in these portrayals of life in Liberia is that they offer real historical context and avoid the sensational in service of the humane. Media representation is a fact of modern life, and thoughtful treatment of faraway subjects is likely to become even trickier in a globalized age of fluid identities and shifting cultural allegiances. Journalists from the Western world will continue to write about Liberia, Africa, and the global south, so the question becomes one of responsibility in both intention and execution. For us as media consumers, there is a need to be critical with what we encounter and, if possible, beware of safari-hat journalists looking to confirm our fears about the terrifying world we sometimes appear to think we live in.