God No Say So
Switzerland, Sierra Leone 2010, 88 mins,
God No Say So finds the uplifting spirit in those who suffered the hardships of war in Sierra Leone. From the hard-working Bonka people, through the prostitute Julietta, and the wild, hilarious, organized antics of the school children, we are treated to a spirit of togetherness, optimism, and sheer joy.
God No Say So was filmed in Sierra Leone where a civil war raged during the last decade of the 20th century. The film consists of several chapters: victims of amputations from Kabala recounting their experiences; youngsters showing their hiding place during the civil war; a woman named Julietta telling us about her life and hopes for the future; and a journalist speaking of the dire living conditions in a slum. At the start of the film, we get a history lesson in text about the civil war’s background.
This way of conveying more general information recurs later. Filmmaker Brigitte Uttar Kornetzky tells us the film is about what she saw when she visited Sierra Leone four years later: the people. The next thing we see are people from Kabala talking about their experiences during the civil war and more specifically about the killings, mutilations and amputations. In sometimes quite extreme close-ups, various unnamed people recount the atrocities they had to face. As people gather around the central witness, the camera is consciously looking for signs of amputations, scars and other testimonies of the violence.
It feels like talking to someone who looks away instead of into your eyes, not acknowledging their attention to your words. The on-site translator does not help to create any intimacy or a feeling of shared experience in the recounting of these people. Some dreamlike images are interspersed with the accounts of the various individuals, but stylistically it is all too different for the film to create a sense of unity.
Later on, we follow a group of youngsters in Bonka as they show us Aberdeen bridge, their shelter during the war. They give us and the filmmaker a tour of the interior of the bridge and we see where the men slept, ate and bathed. Now the dialogue is in English and the filmmaker reveals herself in her questions. Again we don’t know who these people are or what their lives look like now.
They are just showing us around and telling us about their refuge. Next, a young woman named Julliette shares her struggle for survival while hoping her love will one day return, marry her and take care of her and their children. In a semi-dialogue with a client (or is it her pimp?) about money we find out Julliette’s occupation as well as her wishes for the future. The images are again in close-up and we see little more than the direct surroundings of the locality where Julliette is interviewed. Mohamed Bai Sanu is introduced as a journalist. He points out the horrible conditions in Kroo Bay, a slum in Freetown, and talks about the political failures that have brought about and maintain the status quo. In a semi-stand-up pose, he shares his thoughts on camera. We also see people wandering around in the neighbourhood, children playing, grown-ups hanging around, at times looking back suspiciously.
The film starts and ends with children at school, the ubiquitous symbol of innocence and hope for the future. And without wishing to underestimate the courage of Uttar Kornetzky to go out and make this film on her own, nor her good intentions in doing so, something is missing. It makes me think of the distinction Hayden White made between chronicles and histories.1 In his consideration of narrating and narrativity, he turns to historiography to illustrate the difference between the two, as historiography, like documentary film, has to deal with the real. While a chronicle just presents facts and terminates in medias res, a history contains a closing, a conclusion as well as a moral judgement.
«the camera is consciously looking for signs of amputations, scars and other testimonies of the violence»
Chronicles leave things unsolved and present unfinished stories. Histories present narrativised stories and it is in this narrativising that the author is able to reflect on historical facts and give them meaning. It is precisely reflection that makes documentaries what they are. It’s like looking in the mirror, but it’s never quite the same. And reflection is what is missing in God no say so. Although that doesn’t mean that the film has no value or significance, it does mean that the film is lacking documentary quality. It just dishes up facts without reflecting on them. Linked to this is the lack of identity of the people portrayed.
Most of the individuals who share their stories are not identified; neither by name nor by any other means other than as victims of war. We don’t know who they are, what they do and what their lives look like. What other activities, talents and achievements may define them? The only context we get is a location and general facts about the war, but that hardly does these people justice. As a consequence, for the viewer, these people – like so many before them – are only defined in stereotypes: yet another group of poor Africans fighting each other, Africans waiting to be saved by someone else, poor people living in slums. And we have seen it all before.
Uttar Kornetzky’s doesn’t do much more than repeat what we already now. And there is no need to tell us because we know. However, there is a need to tell us some things: What does it mean? What can we learn? How can we understand?
Of course, there is no misunderstanding about the immorality of the events recounted in God No Say So and the injustice of the poverty displayed. And of course these stories should be told and heard. But there is a difference between telling and telling about, just as there is a difference between telling and showing. Events need more to be remembered and understood than just to be told. They need to be told about. It is not my intention in any way to downplay the events of the Sierra Leone Civil War, nor the experiences of the people depicted in this film. I do believe though that both deserve a better film.
1 Hayden White (1980) The Value of narrativity in the representation of reality. In Critical Inquiry Vol.7 No. 1, pp 5-27.