In a nation that boasts Africa’s first democratically-elected female president, it probably wouldn’t be such a stretch if one were to assume that women had already traversed the pinnacle of every profession, and that the Presidency was after all, that final prize that had eluded them until Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia in 2005.
But that apparently is not the case. At least, not in the fledgling Liberian movie landscape that is emerging as Liberians now try to make an imprint in the pulsating African movie kaleidoscope that is beaming across the continent and the world, after their country’s devastating 14-year civil war.
With Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry is known, now the second largest film industry in the world in terms of number of films produced annually, filmmaking has evolved as a viable medium for Africans to tell their own stories and share them with the world.
Sadly, during Nollywood’s exponential growth in the 1990s, for the most part, the only portrayal of Liberia on film was consigned to mesmeric war documentaries and newsreels showing drugged up child soldiers with AK-47’s almost the length of their bodies, decaying bodies littered on the streets for dogs to feast on, and clips of rebel fighters boasting about their sadistic acts of cannibalism.
But the tragic story of the Liberian Civil War is most certainly not the only one that Liberians want to be known for enacting on film. Therefore, notwithstanding being left behind as Nigerian and other African filmmakers made headways in the film industry, up-and-coming Liberian film producers are determined to carve a place for themselves on Africa’s pulsating film stage.
Reeling in the Glass Ceiling
One such rising Liberian filmmaker is Aletha Jones-Campbell, who has burst onto the scene – and some might say out of the blue – with a new movie called “Somewhere in Baltimore,” a riveting coming-of-age drama about a boy called Linus, who witnessed a tragic event that shatters his once sheltered existence and jettisons him on a spellbinding journey with all its attending psychological and emotional struggles into adulthood, where he must finally deal with threats to his life arising from that
And, having already bagged this year’s Liberian Entertainment Awards for Best Movie, despite Somewhere in Baltimore being Aletha’s first full feature production, it may not be completely wrong to say that Aletha has burst onto the scene out of the blue. Because, with no formal education in filmmaking, and a degree in Computer Engineering and Behavior Analysis, even some of Aletha’s friends guffawed at her when she told them she was making a movie.
“When I initially told some friends I was going to make a movie, they laughed in my face. But after I completed the movie and some of them saw a sneak preview of the movie and how well it was put together, they were amazed that I had been able to produce such a movie,” Aletha said.
But while Aletha’s role behind the camera may be a new one, you would probably be hard-pressed to
“I love challenges and I love competition. And though entering the movie business seems like such a daunting task, especially as a female producer, I’m never afraid to tackle challenges.”Aletha Jones-Campbell, Liberian Filmmaker
find another person more primed by her own life experience to depict a story about a character dealing with a devastating personal tragedy on film.
So Somewhere in Baltimore, written by her husband, Andrew P. Campbell “when he was still in grade school,” as Aletha put it, may after all have been a serendipitous first project for Aletha to portray on film, since it is a story about a protagonist who experienced a tragic personal event, something she knows all too painfully about after her near-death experience during her nation’s gruesome civil war.
“Some armed men came banging on our house door and when I opened it, one of them pointed a gun to my head. They had just killed a friend of mine and they said they were also going to kill everyone in the house. When I asked them why they were going to kill us, they said they just felt like killing, that’s all. We were then taken outside in the pouring rain to be executed. And mind you, all this time while we were standing outside in the rain pleading for them to spare our lives, I was holding my newborn baby—only 3 days old— in my arms,” Aletha remembered.
She and her newborn’s life were spared but Aletha struggled for many years to overcome the trauma of that experience. Not long after fleeing the civil war ravaging her country and arriving in the US, Aletha was sitting on the porch of her sister’s house with friends of her sister who had stopped by to celebrate the US Independence Day holiday when she experienced a terrifying flashback of that dreadful day.
“As we were sitting outside, I suddenly heard loud cracking sound of firecrackers going off and thinking it was the sound of gunfire, I ran into the house and locked myself in the bathroom. When my sister and her friends ran after me to find out what was wrong, I told them
that the soldiers were coming to get us,” Aletha said she spluttered through the bathroom door, overcome with paralyzing fear.
But her sister assured her that no one was coming for her and that Americans celebrated their independence day by setting off firecrackers.
Taking the Show Back To Africa
Somewhere in Baltimore has garnered rave reviews for its poignant portrayal of Linus’, the movie’s protagonist, singular struggle to overcome a personal tragedy, and that may probably also be attributable to Aletha’s ability to tap into her own traumatic experience to create a riveting character.
But that is certainly not the only reason. Somewhere in Baltimore is also a movie that brings together an impressive array of talented up-and-coming actors from various countries: Liberia, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria and the US, to name a few. And managing all these actors, including some child actors, must have also been quite a challenge for a new film producer.
However, having taught herself filmmaking by “reading books on how to produce movies” Aletha is surely not one to wither under immense challenges and she seems to have done an impressive job of working with Liberian actor, Bobby Valantino, who plays Linus, and all the other actors and actresses to deliver one helluva performance for the camera.
“I love challenges and I love competition. And though entering the movie business seems like such a daunting task, especially as a female producer, I’m never afraid to tackle challenges,” Aletha said.
And the next challenge ahead is taking the movie on the road where they plan to premiere it for audiences in Liberia on June 22 and Ghana on July 13.
But, notwithstanding all the challenges involved in planning such a trip, along with many detractors telling them that Liberians and other African moviegoers only support Nigerian movies, Aletha and her husband are not deterred.
“I left Liberia about 20 years ago, and now after all these years, I’m looking forward to returning home. I look forward to showing our movie to audiences in Ghana and Liberia and we hope that they will come out to show their support for our movie,” Aletha said.
The Rewriting of the Script Has Only Just Begun…
As a co-founder of Smooth Fusion Films, which is the independent film company that Aletha founded with her husband, don’t even dare to think this is going to be the last you will hear from Liberia’s first female film producer. Already, Aletha says she and the Smooth Fusion Films crew are working on an action-pack thriller that will be even more spellbinding than Somewhere in Baltimore.
With Aletha and her Smooth Fusion Films crew, it seems like the dark days when the only times Liberians were mentioned in movies on the international film circuit were in war documentaries is coming to an inexorable blissful end.
Now, it is no longer a question of whether Liberians will also create an indelible imprint on the pulsating African movie kaleidoscope beaming across the world, but a matter of when.
And Aletha is doing that one reel at a time!