By Shosha Adie • BSc Anthropology
The Land Beneath our Feet was one of the main screenings at this year’s Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) film festival, an annual event that celebrates ethnographic filmography. Despite not being a prize winner, it was highlighted by the judges for taking the subject of land tenure and ‘putting it together in a very propelling format.’ Set in Monrovia, the vibrant capital of Liberia, a country still healing from over a decade of civil war, it paints a picture of a nation trying to recover their identity despite their colonial roots and embeddedness within the global economy today. With its missing history, destroyed during the war, the landscape is the holder of these memories, and conflict is quick to ignite in disputes where land ownership is involved.
As part of a reporter internship with the RAI, I was given the opportunity to both interview the film’s father, Gregg Mitman, who holds a distinguished Chair at the Wisconsin-Madison university in the US, and meet London-based cinematographer Sarita Siegel who acted as director. What they illuminated to me, and what I would like to share with you, is the intrinsic importance of land for national identity and how films can inspire real change.
We learn from the film that for Liberians, land ‘belongs to the living… to those who are already dead, and those who are yet to be born. It does not belong to one person.’ At present, Liberia is trying to push a Land Rights Bill that will legitimise community rights to land, and protect customary land owners from falling prey to commercial businesses who already exploit over a million hectares of Liberian soil for profit. Learning about this ongoing struggle is important for Professor Gregg Mitman, who sees this movement in Liberia as a ‘microcosm’ for the global scale of land grabs and land dispossession.
The film follows student, Emmanuel Urey’s, journey to discover more about his homeland, which he had left for the US during the Liberian civil wars. This time he is coming back with footage, taken years before war even broke out, captured by Harvard students contemporaneously as one of the first commercial land grabs was being conducted in 1926, by major rubber company, Firestone. When shown in America this footage was criticised for ‘reinscribing racism’ but to Urey and his family, Mitman was surprised to find, ‘This was like home movies. It was about kinship.’ After witnessing people’s reactions to the archive, he realised that ‘there was a film to be made in this’, not just a book, and called up director Sarita Siegel.
‘We kind of constructed it as we went along.’ I was told by Siegel, ‘You know, as a filmmaker you’re always thinking forwards and backwards and sideways… There is a lot of stories in this film and a lot of layers of history… with the loss of elders, came the loss of respect for the oral tradition. Where you get the past being swept away, and the present sweeping in with all its rigidity and laws and written statutes… memories are being swept away.’
When releasing the film, they were worried that people in Liberia might be hesitant about making the entire archive available for the public since it shows forced labour, and for its potential to reignite ethnic conflict, but Mitman tells me that, ‘in fact that wasn’t the case. I was very hesitant about the medical photographs, but again they said it should be made public… a real difference in what my expectations and political assumptions were versus how that material was perceived in Liberia.’
Their ethical conscience was also challenged during the Ebola outbreak of Summer 2014. The film crew were in Monrovia when the first Ebola deaths occurred and, completely dismayed with the international news coverage surrounding the outbreak, realised they had to shed light on what was actually happening on the ground. Sarita left after a few weeks, followed by Urey and Mitman. Filmmaker, Alex Waipah, stayed and captured the events that unfurled. Sarita remembers she had to drop everything to help make the Ebola film: ‘You cut it down and cut it down and you eventually get to a point where you think it’s ethically right.’ I’ve included the finished project here, but note that it contains very distressing and emotional content. Neither filmmaker describes what happened as a drawback, but instead as a tragedy that struck very close to home. Despite common preconceptions about governmental regulation in African countries, they had no problems with visas, and held a strong support network throughout the process of filmmaking, from both the US and Liberia.
Though the land rights act has faced numerous challenges within the Liberian legislature, which is why we still haven’t seen a result. This year there has been a massive push to get it legitimised since it needs to be passed before the next election or it may never happen. The European Union has backed their pledge, realising the importance of customary land ownership for both women’s rights and national heritage, as Liberian locals reclaim their land from the commercial corporations that currently exploit it.
Both filmmakers stressed that the meaning behind a film comes from what people make of it. The main Liberian land authority in Monrovia has been very supportive with their work on The Land Beneath Our Feet, and will potentially use the footage help educate people about land rights issues. Parts have even been taken up by rising Liberian political artists in their work. What we can do to help indigenous awareness movements is support charities such as Survival International who recognise that indigenous land rights are one of the most basic and integral human rights. We also have the power to prevent big brands from exploiting the global south by simply spending our money elsewhere, and raising awareness so that others do the same.
*All images courtesy of http://thelandbeneathourfeet.com