Dramatizations based on historical truths often must gloss over certain facts. It can be impossible, over the course of two hours, to fully explore the historical realities of a moment in time. Events within our world tend to be far, far too complicated to be able to show all the facets and antecedents of events within the scope of a dramatic narrative.
This statement is not meant to excuse such representations. When a film starts off by stating that it is “based on a true story” a responsibility is placed on the audience’s shoulders to accept this statement and understand the corollary: not everything that appears in this film is necessarily true. There is also still a responsibility on the part of the filmmaker to make everything conform as much to reality as possible, to alter the truth only when necessary.
Documentaries on the other hand face an entirely different set of issues. Traditional documentaries, as pieces of non-fiction, are tasked with fully and completely exploring an issue in all of its facets. They, unquestionably, make arguments and things are colored to promote one point of view or another, but everything within them ought to be true, and omission is a sin.
So, when a documentary like The Empire in Africa comes along, a documentary that consciously sets itself up to be the truth that Blood Diamond, a “based on a true story” drama, couldn’t tell, the claim of accuracy of representation is further enhanced. The Empire in Africa is very consciously putting itself forward as delivering the truth of what has happened in Sierra Leone over the course of the past 20 years.
Not having loved Blood Diamond, thinking that it skimmed the surface of history a little too frequently, I was quite curious to see what The Empire in Africa had to say about Sierra Leone’s recent history. I was hugely disappointed with what I found.
At times, The Empire in Africa is a hard movie to watch; there are violent images, a man is shot at the opening of the documentary, and many of the things that have happened to people in Sierra Leone are hard to listen to. The story of the last few decades in the country is one of gross fiscal and governmental mismanagement, war, strife, starvation, and the tearing apart of families. However, this is not what disappointed me.
I speak a little bit of French, not much, but enough to know when the member of the French consulate that appears in the film is incorrectly, or (if I’m being nice) incompletely, translated, repeatedly. Whether his many utterings of “Je pense” (“I think”) may have been removed simply to streamline the subtitles, they alter the meaning of what is said. And, if I was able to quickly discern that these words were being left out, one wonders what else was translated incorrectly or completely left out.
I do know though that these errors were not the only ones made. The film also adds English subtitles to people speaking English with thick accents. One of these people in recounting some history speaks of “societal ills” which gets the subtitle “society heals.” Not only does this not have the same meaning as “societal ills,” it makes no sense within the context it is used.
Thus, not only does this exploration of Sierra Leone neglect to translate some French, it makes mistakes in translating spoken English to written English.
This forces one to ask: what else is the film getting wrong? If director Philippe Diaz cannot be counted on to tell us what people are saying directly to the camera, what if what has happened off-screen to Sierra Leone is being misrepresented, misstated, or simply lied about? How can the viewer accept statements about the RUF, the United Nations, and the umpteen other factions present in Sierra Leone as truth when it's clear that the film isn’t terribly concerned with the accuracy of statements by those they interview?
When the documentary has a former representative of the United Nations and current minister of finance speak, and the documentary seems to support his statements as truth, and then, 15 minutes later, explains the depths to which this same man allegedly went in order to rig a national election in Sierra Leone, what can the audience make of this?
No one can argue that Sierra Leone has had an incredibly difficult set of problems to deal with over the past few decades. Between “blood” diamonds, guerrillas amputating citizens, and brainwashing of children (just to name a few of the problems), the country has had more than its share of hardships. And, while it is a good thing to have the story of Sierra Leone told, to raise awareness of what has happened, and is happening there, a film that is “based on a true story” and overtly states that there are false moments in it is far preferable to a documentary that claims, falsely, to be the truth.