When Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president in 2005 after decades of civil war, many of its people hoped for a new Liberia. Among those celebrating was Silas Siakor, an activist who had exposed how illegal logging in Liberia funded the regime of brutal warlord Charles Taylor. But Siakor soon began receiving reports that illegal logging was still going on, despite the new president’s vow to end the corruption that had left ordinary Liberians among the poorest in the world.
Silas charts an investigation that eventually revealed how multinational corporations were taking over more than 50% of Liberia’s forests – around 25% of the country as a whole. It is a story of companies forging tribespeople’s signatures and hiring thugs to drive them off their land, of authorities embezzling millions of dollars from funds meant for Ebola recovery efforts, and of a cover-up that is gradually traced back to the heart of the government and the president herself.
Combining filming from the field with United Nations footage, and shot over the course of seven years from 2010, Silas both documents what was happening on the ground in Liberia and is still happening, and examines the country’s history as a democracy. It is also an intimate of its portrait of its hero, taking us into his home to explore the motivations of a man who was awarded the 2006 Goldman Prize (the “environmental Nobel Prize”) and the personal costs of his commitment to often dangerous work, fighting vested interests.
It shows, touchingly, Siakor’s relationship with the communities with whom he works to defend their rights, and the photography in these scenes, particularly, is beautiful. It may one day be a record of a way of life that cared for the forests instead of exploiting them.
Illegal logging and land-grabbing is not just an issue for Liberia, and Silas is currently on a European tour with NGOs campaigning for more EU action to support human rights and environmental defenders.
At the Brussels premiere, Saskia Ozinga from the association Fern said the EU had already acted to stop illegal timber being imported to Europe, but that more needed to be done to counter the damaging spread of oil palm and soy plantations. Siakor said his “Brussels message” was: “support civil society. It is the people on the frontline who record companies’ and governments’ crimes and make fighting corruption possible, and it is they who are most at risk,” he said.
Asked whether he found it “depressing” that corruption was still prevalent in Liberia, Siakor insisted that there “are hopeful moments, and I want to dwell on those.” He added that he had agreed to cooperate in making the film on one condition: that it showed his and his people’s struggles as they really were, with no “movie tricks”. In the end, Silas is just that – an important film of a community fighting and hoping for a better future for themselves and their country.