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Ohio University filmmakers return to Liberia

Feb. 25, 2005

By Jennifer Cochran

Anything can happen when two former Peace Corps volunteers get together. Several years ago while answering the phones for pledge week at WOUB, Karen Dahn and Andrew Carlson had a conversation about elections in Liberia. Little did Dahn know that the ideas tossed around that day would lead to the creation of a film on nation-building in Liberia.

 In the fall of 2004 Carlson and Dahn, along with Steve Ross, a professor in the School of Film and experienced filmmaker, traveled to Liberia a year after the inauguration of Liberia's interim government as part of a filmmaking project. Ohio University administrator Karen Dahn had suggested to Carlson the prospect of making a film on the Liberian presidential elections.

As events unfolded in Liberia, the election scheduled for the fall of 2003 was postponed and President Charles Taylor, a central figure in Liberia's 14-year civil war, stepped down and went into exile. Carlson, a graduate of Ohio University's Center for International Studies, and Ross went to Liberia in October 2003 to witness and record as a transitional government was inaugurated, ushering in the end of the civil war and the beginning of reconstruction. The task of rebuilding is enormous for Liberians and the international community. The filmmakers documented the inauguration of the interim government, led by Chairman Gyude Bryant, and laid the groundwork for further documentary work on the country and its reconstruction.

"In October 2003 we were there on the brink of something new," said Ross. "The people on the street were euphoric about a new and brighter future." According to Ross, the Liberian people were excited at the time of the interim government's inauguration since the fighting had stopped and Gyude Bryant was saying all the right things.

Although the filmmakers brought 35 hours of film footage home with them in 2003, they knew then that they had to go back to Liberia to see how the rebuilding of the nation was progressing and to gather more footage. "We didn't get enough from the last trip," said Carlson. "We didn't feel we were able to do justice to the story without going back."

This time Karen Dahn accompanied Carlson and Ross as the film's associate producer. Dahn served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia more than 20 years ago and later worked as a Peace Corps administrator there. She was happy to return to Liberia and assist Carlson and Ross with project logistics and with accessing a network of people involved in the reconstruction efforts.

Through Dahn's contacts in the Ministry of Information, the filmmakers were able to set up an interview with Gyude Bryant. "A lot of people on the street are questioning the efficacy of the transitional government," Carlson said, adding that Chairman Bryant was able to address those questions. Carlson explained that many freedom fighters had only recently turned in their weapons. "The people in the government didn't feel they could make changes in the government while weapons were still in people's hands."

Carlson said it was an amazing experience to interview the Liberian leader but "really the story is about the Liberian people and their hope for the elections in 2005." Elections will be held in October 2005. There were nearly 40 political parties in Liberia and 35 presidential candidates as of November 2004.

Much has changed in Liberia in the year since the fighting ended and the interim government was inaugurated. According to Ross, one major difference was that stability had been achieved and disarmament had occurred. "There were no outbreaks of fighting to speak of," said Ross.

 "There's a lot more small business," Carlson observed. "Emotionally and spiritually there's a big difference - that jubilant hope at the end of the war has become a realization that there's a lot of work to be done." He said that the people who had been fighting have many hopes - some for jobs, some to return to school - but many of those hopes have not yet been realized.

Ross said that although it seemed the United Nations had done its job of establishing stability, people seemed to think differently about the work of the interim government. "What we saw was an utter contempt for the job the government had done," he said. "There are a lot of angry voices all over the place." He added that there is also a sense that there is something to be thankful for since the war is over.

According to Dahn the interim government has turned out to be corrupt and inefficient, disappointing the people and resulting in growing cynicism regarding the upcoming elections. She explained that there is still no running water or electricity in the capital city of Monrovia and that services such as garbage disposal and health care are not being provided. Liberia is still home to a large population of internally displaced people and there are very few jobs available. But, Dahn says, "Liberians are survivors, people who are tenacious, who are so creative in the ways they've found to live, who are so hopeful for their children's future. One thing that everybody wants is education for their children."

"We all came back with an appreciation of how strong the people are and their ability to take on the challenge of the next few years," said Carlson. "This time we were able to travel all over Liberia so we saw and heard from a much more diverse group of people. I learned and understand much more about the background and what caused the conflict. You go out and people want to tell their stories of struggle." Carlson complained that people had been getting away with corruption for years in Liberia. "There's got to be an end to the culture of impunity," Carlson exclaimed. The Liberian government is working on forming a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the crimes perpetrated during Liberia's civil war.

Meanwhile, Karen Dahn looks forward to the premiere of what she says will be a beautiful film thanks to the work of producer and co-director Andrew Carlson and cinematographer and co-director Steve Ross. As he embarked on the editing process, Ross remarked about the film, "I hope it's a message of truth. It'll be a realistic appraisal of what's going on there."

Dahn, whose two children spent both spent part of their childhoods in Liberia, now hopes to return to the country after retiring. "My heart is full of Liberia right now. I think of it many times every day," she said. "It was a privilege for me to be part of a filmmaking project ... it was such an opportunity for me to go back." Dahn left Liberia suddenly in the mid-80s when the political climate was growing unstable, but said she immediately felt at home in Liberia upon her return. "I didn't get to say goodbye, but instead of goodbye, it was hello. Liberia is my second home," she said. "It's a place where I know that I can work and do good for the benefit of the country."

To read more about the film, which is now in the editing stages, and the film-making process visit the Web site at www.liberialonestarrising.org.


Jennifer Cochran is assistant director for communications and graduate programming with the Center for International Studies.

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