Hull 2017 commissioned Nova Studios to create a series of films chronicling the daily lives of the ordinary people of Hull and their counterparts in the city’s twin town Freetown in Sierra Leone, posing the question “How do you have a happy life?” These captivating shorts draw on the differences, similarities, humanity, vulnerability and diversity of the lives and experiences of their subjects.
In this article, Nova Studio’s filmmaker Matt Stephenson gives an insight into his personal connection with the city and how the idea for the commission evolved.
It’s difficult to think of Sierra Leone and its capital Freetown – with whom Hull has a longstanding civic partnership – without thinking of the troubles the country has been through: a history of slavery, military coups, civil war, poverty and most recently, the horror of the Ebola pandemic.
And yet, to define the country simply by its hardships fails to tell the whole story. The truth is that Sierra Leone is a strikingly beautiful nation with a rich cultural heritage, abundant in natural resources, populated by resilient, open people who offer the warmest of welcomes.
Exploring Lives in two cities
My first trip to Freetown was in 2006. Back then I was working as a journalist and I was invited by the Arts Council organisation Creative Partnerships to get involved in a project working with young people in Hull and Freetown, encouraging them to explore each others’ lives through film, photography and writing, with the aim of renewing the partnership between the two cities.
Since then, along with my colleague Alan Jones, I’ve visited Freetown 14 times – and its fair to say we’ve fallen in love with the place. Freetown has a strange way of taking hold of your heart. It’s a stunning city. Located on the coast, it’s built on hills that rise sharply from the sea-line; when the country was first ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese explorer Pedro de Cinta, he named it Serra Leoa, meaning ‘Lion Mountain’, as the view of the hills from his ship reminded him of the shape of a sleeping lion.
This is Africa. It’s Freetown. It’s thrilling. Coming from our tidy, organised, tightly controlled European way of life, we found Freetown to be soaked in colour, noise, busy-ness. The sun and humidity are intense, there are palm trees, the yellow taxis constantly shout to each other in hoots and honks, the music blares, the traffic is insane. There are ‘petty traders’ everywhere selling everything from chewing gum to fresh mangoes and steering wheels to hand towels, as well as books, jeans, CDs, peanuts, bags of cold water. Muscly men strain to load handcarts, women carry baskets of charcoal piled high on their heads, and kids dodge the cars, skipping into school in pristine uniforms.
All that might be true, but it sounds like a cliché of Africa. And it certainly doesn’t paint a complete picture – it’s not all hustle and bustle and market traders. Freetown is a busy port, and a centre for government and business in West Africa. It’s also a university city, and a place where Christians and Muslims live in harmony. After years of British colonial rule, followed by dictatorship, decline, war, poverty and disease, Sierra Leone is a young country – it only gained independence in 1961 – where a new sense of patriotism, pride and potential is beginning to dissolve long-held tribal divisions and unite the people.
People make places
And just like back home in Hull, it’s the people who really embody the unique spirit of the place.
Our closest friend in Sierra Leone is Lansana Mansaray (aka Barmmy Boy). A filmmaker, musician and youth activist, Barmmy is one of the most inspiring people you could ever meet. Like many Sierra Leoneans, he has seen more than anyone’s fair share of pain and yet –like so many of the Sierra Leoneans we know – he has an incredible ability to move past his experiences and put his country first. Barmmy works ceaselessly to keep his family and friends afloat, to create other opportunities for young Sierra Leoneans, and to promote and develop the country he loves.
So what is it that gives these people their strength, their humour and their open hearts? You can’t help but think it’s because of the struggles they’ve been through. When you’ve seen your friends killed by soldiers who were supposed to protect you when your government has stolen from you, when the law has broken down, when your little brother dies simply because he has diarrhoea, when you’ve had to eat rats because the shops were empty of food… Well, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
Sierra Leoneans are all too familiar with death, and so they live life to the full. They live it for the here and now, they give thanks for it, and when they can, they squeeze every last drop from it!
Do we do the same in the UK? The majority of us live on regular incomes or benefits. We shop in supermarkets and online, we have electricity and running water, we have (so we’re told) an open and free democracy. We have the National Health Service and free education; we have motorways and the BBC, free museums and the City of Culture.