Sing, Freetown: One Play for the Soul of a Nation (Review)
Moving, sympathetic and dazzlingly rhythmic, Sing, Freetown is that rare documentary that not only captures but stands alongside the struggles of its subjects.
At the start of Sing, Freetown, Sorious Samura is a tired man. One of the world’s most respected international journalists, he has spent decades describing the horrors of Africa to a western audience: famine, disease, war, and corruption. Now, exhausted and disillusioned with recounting tales of pure negativity, he has decided to tell the positive stories that the west forgets, or cares little about. His home of Sierra Leone, in particular, exists in his work as only a half-truth, with death and destruction crowding out the tales of humanity, culture, and pride that deserve their place in global consciousness. Sierra Leone was once, as Samura repeatedly mentions, the “Athens of West Africa”, home to the continent’s first university and a unique epicentre of post-slavery freedom – if he can only bring these stories to light, perhaps he can restore a pride that he feels is slipping through the nation’s fingertips.
Telling a story that may save a nation is no easy feat. Samura embarks upon this journey with the playwright Charlie Haffner, one of Sierra Leone’s most influential creative figures and a keen advocate of the power of storytelling for the purposes of national advancement. Together, the pair attempt to craft a play that may rekindle the national pride that they feel the country desperately needs. Thus begins Sing, Freetown, a process meticulously documented by fellow investigative journalist Clive Patterson of triumph and disaster, of an impossibly ambitious dream that consumes and dominates the worlds of these two men, becoming a battle not only for theatrical success but for the soul of a nation. The resulting documentary is a startling, deeply sympathetic work that strikes right at the heart of what international journalism can and should do – tell national stories of immense scale through intimately personal and human experiences.
It is difficult to pin down just a single one of Sing, Freetown’s extraordinary goals, as the threads of postcolonialism, artistic expression and personal tragedy weave together seamlessly, creating a microcosmic tapestry of Sierra Leone itself. Samura and Haffner certainly attempt to grapple with how Sierra Leone, and indeed Africa as a whole, must emerge from the wreckage of colonialism and slavery. To Samura in particular, the corruption that constantly hamstrings the nation’s rise is a direct result of a lack of public engagement with a national identity, as Sierra Leone tears itself apart between postcolonial dreams of western assimilation and fiercely nationalistic, uniquely African pride. Yet the pair’s attempt to restore this pride must take place within and in spite of this same corruption, and its manifestations are at equal turn absurd and morbid – a corporate agent demanding payment for organising sponsorship, a mudslide blamed upon poor governmental building standards killing and displacing thousands in the heart of the city. At every turn, Sing, Freetown is there; investigative journalism liberated from the pressures of bipartisanship, its reporting is visceral, furious, and undeniable.
However, Sing, Freetown is just as much a relatively universal story of conflict between artist and producer. Haffner’s creative process is as sporadic as it is virtuosic, and work on his opus is, at times, frustratingly stagnant. Samura frequently cuts a figure of instantly recognisable exasperation. He is the bedraggled producer in Fellini’s 8 ½, the stage manager in Iñárritu’s Birdman, yet within the purview of documentary these frustrations become more real, teetering on the verge of genuine calamity. To Samura, the result of failure in this project is nothing short of national tragedy. Haffner’s own personal demons must also, inevitably, rear their heads: scenes where Haffner mourns his late wife and creative partner are among the more emotionally resonant sequences the film offers. To balance the seemingly disparate threads of artistic difficulty and national identity is a herculean task, yet one that Patterson manages with aplomb, seamlessly wedding the emotional to the philosophical.
It is through the film’s technical skill that these ideas combine, intertwine into a work of astounding consistency and often irresistible rhythm. As footage of Samura and Haffner’s endeavours are interspersed with performances from Haffner’s theatre troupe the Freetong Players, Patterson’s background in journalistic filmmaking is immediately obvious. The film pulses with a beat and sympathy reminiscent of the very best travel documentaries of Anthony Bourdain, a humour and life underpinning it that draws a viewer deeper into the uplifting spirit of Sierra Leone that the film’s heroes are so desperate to impart. Its graphics and embellishments are enticing, yet thankfully sparingly employed, allowing the film’s subjects the ultimate responsibility for their own story. It is a work of immediately apparent and confident competence, coupled with a deep reverence for the subject matter that avoids any and all temptation to do anything but let a story of remarkable profundity and depth unfold.
Sing, Freetown’s greatest successes come in its ability to augment, not simply document the play that dominates its events. Patterson’s attempts to show Samura and Haffner’s struggles become in and of themselves a story not only of the pains of creation, but of the many faces of contemporary Africa, of a nation at a crossroads between cultural erosion, self-destruction, and the road to true self-determination. It is a remarkable piece of documentary cinema that lands far above expectations to create a work of sympathy and potentially transformative power. Sorious Samura and Charlie Haffner set out to create a piece of art that struck at the nebulous, nigh-undefinable “True Africa”, and Clive Patterson set out to tell the story of this process, not just of the results. Whether the former pair succeeded is a question that is not for a European writer to answer. Whether the latter succeeded is one that can be answered with a great deal more confidence – Patterson has entwined his own endeavours with those of Samura and Haffner, creating that rare breed of documentary that becomes inseparable from its subject. The result is truly remarkable.
Sing, Freetown had its World Premiere at Sheffield Doc Fest on Friday, 11th June, 2021, and received a limited cinema release in the UK from Friday, 25th June. The film will have its US Premiere as part of DOC NYC on Wednesday 17th November.
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