'The Gangs of Freetown' - Sierra Leone documentary
We are making a feature-length documentary on Sierra Leone’s gangs – known locally as ‘cliques’ – to provide original insight into their day-to-day lives, as told from their own perspectives.
This is made possible by the unique access that filmmaker Hazel Chandler has, having lived and worked alongside these street gangs for 12 years, and the research that Kieran Mitton (a Senior Lecturer and Sierra Leone expert at King’s College London) has conducted over the last decade.
The voices of the young people on Sierra Leone’s margins will be at the centre of the film. To give the documentary focus, we will film primarily in the capital city Freetown.
The documentary will closely follow the lives of gang members like Ibrahim:
Ibrahim is a street gangster. He was a child soldier who only recently returned home to meet his mother after 16 years. She did not recognise him and it was quickly apparent that he still wasn’t welcome - the community held him responsible for murdering one of his family members and many others there. He fled his home after the war and lived on the streets of Freetown, at first enjoying the feelings of power that stealing and fighting gave him. As a father himself he wants a different life for his son but he cannot see a way to get it. Unemployment is high and there are no jobs for someone with little basic education and a reputation for being ‘nasty.’ So gang life is still the best option.
Why are you making a documentary on gangs in Freetown?
Many people believe that it was the frustrations of young Sierra Leoneans that fuelled the bitterly violent eleven-year civil war that began in 1991, when thousands became feared RUF rebels and child soldiers. That conflict ended in 2002, but more than 15 years later a new generation of young ‘rebels’ continues to survive on the dangerous margins of society. Many are too young to even remember the civil war, but just like those who were rebel fighters, they take inspiration from US hip-hop and gangsterism, quoting Tupac and wearing gang-colours as they proudly represent ‘Crips’ and ‘Bloods.’ They fight over territory, they deal drugs and they rob. Some talk of the thrill of fighting rival gangs and their desire to become notorious as they ‘kick the game.’ But this is only one side of a many-sided story. Sierra Leone’s young gangsters also talk of their desperation to escape the ‘traps’ of gang-life and poverty, and to provide more dignified futures for their children. They talk angrily about the lack of job opportunities, condemn the corrupt politicians they claim pay them to cause trouble, and lament over their daily struggle for food and shelter. In short, they have much to say, but to date, few have listened.
How do you plan to shoot the documentary?
The documentary will draw on the unique access of Hazel Chandler and Kieran Mitton to Sierra Leone’s young gangs and their communities. Both are experienced in working with young marginalised people in the country - you can read more further down the page about Hazel and Kieran’s respective work (Hazel is film-maker and co-founder of WAYout Arts and Kieran is a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London )
The documentary will closely follow the lives of gang members like Ibrahim. Interspersed with these central stories will be the views and insights of family members, community members, police and other relevant individuals and groups.
Further preliminary research for the project will be conducted both by Hazel Chandler and Kieran Mitton, building on existing research and established contacts with gangs based across Freetown’s three main territories (West, Central and East). Filming in Freetown will be overseen by Hazel Chandler and will directly involve members from WAYout in filming and production. Individuals like Alusine (pictured below) are exceptionally hard-working and talented young Sierra Leoneans who come from difficult backgrounds, many having formerly lived on the streets or been involved in gangs, who are now using the camera lens to put focus on issues of youth marginalisation, structural inequalities and chronic poverty.
WAYout staff member Alusine (right) will help shoot the documentary.
(image credit: WAYout)
How much do you need to raise?
Right now we are looking to raise £10,000 to cover the following:
1) Preliminary research for the documentary
2) Begin initial filming
3) Production of a short teaser that we can show to prospective funders (and we’ll share with you), to strengthen our bid for the core funding we’d need.
We are looking to secure the remaining (and majority of) funding for this documentary from an arts council or other public competition. Typically, these funds are awarded to cover production and post-production costs, so are not available at this stage.
In our worst case scenario, we would still be able to complete the documentary with around £10,000 – this is a small budget for a documentary of this type, but we’re dedicated and passionate about this project and will aim to crew it with young people, including ex-gang members. We feel it is important that Sierra Leonean youths are directly involved in the filming and production of this documentary from the outset.
We are extremely grateful for any donations to this project and appreciate you taking the time to read. Even if you cannot spare financial support at this time we’d hugely appreciate it if you could share this page with your friends and network. A Tweet or a share on Facebook can have a huge impact and we’d be very grateful!
Who are we?
Hazel Chandler has over 25 years international experience as an award-winning filmmaker. Recent broadcasts include ‘After the Jungle’ for the BBC, about an ex child soldier struggling to come to terms with his past. She is the co-founder of WAYout Arts, which seeks to change the lives of street-young people through the arts. Supported by the Joe Strummer Foundation and artists such as Frank Turner, WAYout provides training and shelter to street-youth and vulnerable and conflict-affected young people, helping them to shoot films and record music that enables the excluded to re-engage. WAYout’s roots go back to 2005, when Hazel started making a film about street youth in Kenema, on the Sierra Leone-Liberia border. She gave gang-leader, Yumyum, a small camera and asked him to record their lives, thinking he would sell it but might record for a couple of days first. Yumyum never sold the camera and went on to shoot 100 hours of footage, raw, candid and sometimes brutal. That camera became his badge of honour and being asked to tell his story was the beginning of a change from which there would be no turning back. This was the inspiration to give other people cameras and tell them their stories are important, and this is where the seed was planted to start WAYout .
Kieran Mitton is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He has been researching violence and youth marginality in Sierra Leone for the past decade, focussing on the past civil war and, more recently, on the growth of the ‘cliques’ (or gangs). He has conducted extensive regular field research in the country, interviewing and getting to know hundreds of former fighters and child soldiers who fought in the past civil war, spending time at street hangouts and in slum communities listening to their stories and experiences. His research and publications have a strong emphasis on seeking out the voices and views of the socially marginalised, including criminals, perpetrators and victims of violence. In 2018, Kieran spent time with various gangs across Freetown, as well as with their family members, communities and local police officers, to conduct one of the few in-depth studies of a growing gang-scene in the country. He is has written numerous articles on Sierra Leone and is the author of‘Rebels in a Rotten State: Understanding Atrocity in Sierra Leone’ . An article drawing on his 2018 fieldwork with gangs is forthcoming.
Main photo: ‘Blood’ gangsters preparing cannabis for sale in Freetown
(image credit: Kieran Mitton, 2018)