POV: The story of Sierra Leone’s All Star Refugees is quite far from your everyday experiences as young Americans. What drew you to the subject?
Zach Niles: I think what drew Banker and me to the story of the Refugee All Stars is that we’d had a common experience after visiting West Africa in university. We both came back feeling like people’s experiences of Africa in the United States are completely different from what our experience of being over there was. I think people only get the negative stories from Africa, and we had really positive experiences. We had made great friends, we loved the food, and we especially loved the music. So when we came back and we tried to explain that to friends, they got this blank look because all they’ve seen are the horror stories. The wars and the famine and all those realities do exist, but there’s so much depth to everything else in Africa.
At that point, we started thinking about making a film in Africa that gave a more human face to the story without neglecting the realities that exist. Over a course of many years we discussed how to incorporate this idea and include music, politics and humanity. The idea of refugee musicians came to us as a way of exploring how people keep their culture alive and how people keep their hope alive in a displaced situation.
Banker White: When you’re a refugee, you’re separated from your family and your country, and so a large part of who you are is your cultural identity, and music is a carrier of culture, of who you are, and a means of expressing yourself. We realized that we wanted to find a musician who would be able to tell their story through their music, and we were looking specifically at Guinea, where there were camps with refugees from both Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Music is not only an important carrier of culture, it also expresses so many emotions, and we wanted to bring this kind of personal emotional connection to the project. It was really important to us that when audiences saw the film they felt like they were emotionally connecting with other people who — even though they’ve been through these horrible, unthinkable experiences — they can still connect with on an emotional level, with a shared sense of humanity.
POV: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars is your first film. How did you get started?
Niles: We had this dream of making this film but we had never made a film before. So where do you go from there? Finally, I got in contact with somebody from the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] — the U.N. refugee agency. He was in East Timor at the time and I sent an email to him telling him about our idea. He wrote back from East Timor and said: “I love your idea. I’ll meet you in Guinea in a month.”
So we bought cameras. I was actually reading the camera’s operating manual on the plane on my way to East Timor. We met our contact there, and we intended to travel to different refugee camps and to look for musicians. But we ourselves are all musicians as well. Chris Velan was our musical director, Banker is a great songwriter and guitar player as well as a great percussionist, I’m a mediocre guitar player, and our U.N. contact is a bass player; we started touring refugee camps and setting up concerts, playing music for the refugees there to provide entertainment, something to take the refugees’ minds away from what they’re going through, and draw out musicians as well.
We traveled to refugee camps all over Guinea and met Liberian refugees and Sierra Leonean refugees. The last camp we visited was called Sembakounya and we went unannounced. When we asked whether there were any musicians there, someone took us to a place called The Place to Be Bar, where we immediately heard some strumming. Banker and Chris and I looked at each other, and then we stuck our heads into the window: There was the band, singing “Living Like A Refugee,” in English, with the lyrics, “You left your country to seek refuge in another man’s land. You will be confronted by strange dialects; you will be fed unusual diets.” Whenever I tell this story I feel like it’s much too serendipitous to be true, but it really happened. That’s how we met the Refugee All Stars.
POV: What drew you to the All Stars? And how did you build trust with them?
White: From the very beginning, we were introduced to the band as musicians. During our first meeting, we didn’t break the cameras out; we sat and we talked with them instead, and I think they were really excited that we were musicians because no one else had really taken an interest in their music. People really appreciate the work that the humanitarian organizations are doing, but nobody has the time to slow down and sit and talk and feel like you’re having a personal connection, and that’s what we were seeking in our film. So I think that helped very much in terms of our rapport. The All Stars felt that they were having a unique experience with us around the musical bond.
Niles: At that point, we still hadn’t asked the band if they were willing to be part of a film. We came back to the camp a week later and we told them that we’d like to make a documentary film about them if they’d be willing to participate. Reuben looked at us very pensively and the band gathered and talked about it. We were really nervous because we’d never done this before; we didn’t know how you’re supposed to ask people to be in a film. They came back to us and Reuben said, “We have one concern… We need time to prepare the dramas.” And we explained that this was not going to be a Hollywood film, that it would be a documentary about them. After we explained the concept of documentary to them Reuben said, “We have one request then. We’d like to have one copy of the film once it’s finished.” We said “Yes, if we ever finish the film, you can have a copy,” and after that point we all became collaborators. The film moved forward from there.
White: What I really found interesting about that was that Zach and I — two first-time filmmakers — had to explain in our words what we thought a documentary was. A lot of that had to do with us saying that we wanted to provide the All Stars with an opportunity to tell their own story, and I think that is an honest description of our intentions in the first place. Having lived and worked in West Africa, we both knew that West Africans can speak for themselves, so before we even left for Africa, we knew that we didn’t want to use a narrator for this film. People really enjoy holding court, being center-stage, having something to say in any language. Many of the All Stars speak multiple languages, and they love debating politics, so the last thing they need is someone to narrate their story.
POV: Tell us about recording the album with the All Stars.
Niles: Our musical director, Chris Velan, produced the album for the All Stars, and the process of recording it was really interesting. In Freetown, most of the music industry had been demolished during the war. Some people had started producing music on computers, but nobody was doing live recordings. We wanted to go into a studio and record live, and finally, we found Sam Jones, who was willing to give it a try.
But now the music industry in Sierra Leone is exploding, and to me, that’s such an important sign for a country that’s rebuilding. Music is really powerful, and now there are songs, including the Refugee All Stars’ songs but also other songs, that are really speaking out against corruption in the government, and this kind of song hadn’t existed before. There’s also a reclaiming of musical tradition, putting together hip-hop and Western-influenced music with traditional beats, so it’s reclaiming their culture after the country has been so devastated.
POV: One of the most compelling characters in the film is Mohammed. Can you tell us more about him and about what he’s up to now?
White: Mohammed’s situation is so complicated, especially the issue of fear. In both the first camp and the second camp, he was in the same living quarters as one of the group of people that had done that to him [Mohammed was forced to watch the murder of his parents and wife, and kill his infant child before having his hand severed]. That person had been following Mohammed around, so it was difficult for Mohammed to get over it because of the person’s presence. It was actually not a unique situation in these types of civil conflicts. A lot of times rebels would recruit people when they came to a town; people were forced to do things they didn’t want to do including acts of torture and mutilation. And so some of those people do not remain soldiers, or oftentimes it’s children — child soldiers — who are asked to do these acts to other people.
It was very difficult for him to not participate in the trip with the All Stars, because he knew this was a great opportunity for the band, and he knew he was missing out on that. For another tour, the band met up with Mohammed two days before they were about to leave. They called us and said “Mohammed’s here, and he wants to come with us.” They tried to include him on that summer tour at the last minute, but it wasn’t possible because of passport and visa issues. But Reuben and the rest of the band continued to support Mohammed.
After the All Stars’ summer tour, he joined the band in Freetown and lived with Reuben and Grace in their apartment. The band is including him on their performance visa so that he can join them on their upcoming tours, and Mohammed himself is doing a lot better.
POV: How did this film change you?
Niles: After going through this process, and after bringing the film to festivals around the world and getting feedback from audiences in the West and in Sierra Leone, I’ve really come to believe in documentary as an effective way to create a certain amount of social change and awareness. That understanding reenergized me and rededicated me to continue in the filmmaking field. I think we should all do what we can to create awareness in this world and making films is an important way to do that. I enjoy filmmaking, and so this experience has set the road ahead of me, for which I can thank the Refugee All Stars.