Liberian DJ PJ (far right) with Sam and Frank Davis (aka AKG)
in Park Hill, Staten Island
One of the things I enjoy most about the filmmaking process is the opportunity to mix with creative sorts of all types. I met with an artist in my neighborhood - Pete Miser - about music, I have talked with several beginning filmmakers about assisting as a PA and I had coffee with an animator - David Sutton - who will do an opening for my piece. But probably the most fun I had was mixing with the young Liberians in Staten Island during my first shoot there yesterday.
I came up with the idea for my pitch after spending 10 days in Liberia last month for a shoot I'm doing with the UN on young people in conflict settings. I was in awe with Liberia's strong fascination with our country. They L-O-V-E George Bush and think 50% of Americans do too(!) I guess this should not be surprising given it's historical relationship with the U.S. - freed American slaves returned to Liberia in 1822, formed a new government and now the "Americo-Liberians" as they are called, are often the ones running the show, holding political and financial clout. Liberia also has the first female President in all of Africa and they now have strong diplomatic ties to America. So, in Monrovia, e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y was talking about Obama and Clinton and to a lesser degree, John McCain. Being from the States, I became an "official" ear for Liberians to share their thoughts on the elections.
"The White House is about to become the Black House!"
"A woman should not be President when a country is at war. She couldn't handle it!"
"If the United States had a female President, they would take better care of the community."
So when one kid asked me if I thought Liberians should get to vote for the next U.S President since the outcome will have such an impact on Liberia and the African continent as a whole, I appeased his question by developing my pitch, "Liberia??? Check!"
I needed to get more footage though than what I could use from Liberia. Thanks to a wonderful Brooklyn-based writer-now-collaborator, Ruthie Ackerman, I was able to enter the gritty, but fascinating world of the Liberia that's been resettled Stateside. It's in Staten Island and boasts the largest Liberian population outside of Africa. The streets there aren't too different from Monrovia where old women set up shop to sell small goods for income, young men are blasting hip hop from their blown-out speakers and parent-less children weeble-wobble through deserted lots on too-big bicycles. The sunset gives permission for drug deals and gang violence to throw civil war-like tension between the Liberians and the African Americans who lay claims to the neighborhood. The Wu Tang Clan who grew up there refers to it as "Crack Hill" or "Killer Hill." Ruthie has been working with the Liberian refugee community for more than a year now, collecting their stories for a book and a longer documentary film. (If you want to know more about this fascinating community, read her article, "Liberia: From One Battlefront to Another" here.)
Ruthie introduced me to PJ - a 34-year old slim man sporting a gold chain bearing the seal of his home country. Back in the Gambia, PJ was the hit DJ, spinning music for his refugee brothers and sisters before coming to the States. We first met PJ's mom who was questioning his choice of an outfit, urged him to hurry up to not keep his guests waiting and was tending to things he needed from her. Moms and sons in little Liberia are apparently no different than anywhere else.
I couldn't ask for a more perfect "host" to this community than PJ. Outcoming, comical, charismatic and definitely confident, he took to the streets asking Liberians young and old alike who they would vote for in the elections and why while interjecting his own commentary and ideas. I originally had hoped to set up a mock debate and vote with young high school students but the candidness of the interviews with a back-drop of real Park Hill life bustling in the background, gave me plenty of material to work with.
Liberian Auntie Selling Goods on the Street
At the end of the day, I started thinking about how this project has brought together an interesting group of people and situations in such a short amount of time - the ex-combatants in Liberia and a former DJ celebrity in Park Hill and Pete Miser's beats and Ruthie's dedication and the beautiful old Liberian women selling plastics on the streets and the dude in the wheelchair smoking a cigarette. This may seem like a strange mix for a short 3-minute film on the elections, but to me, in many ways, it defines what this election is all about. Isn't it?