Daniel Nelson

The central figure in Silas is a Liberian campaigner who has stood up to two governments and fought off a land- encroaching company.

It’s a success story in which victories are achieved against huge political and economic odds.

But Silas Siakor knows that battles can be won and yet the war still lost in the people’s struggle to keep control of lucrative natural resources sought by immensely powerful local and international elites.

It’s a feeling shared by many campaigners: you fight and sometimes win, but the corporate and private greed machine continues to roll relentlessly forward.

That’s why I am heartened by the film, which documents Siakor’s indefatigable drive, but left disturbed by the situation in Liberia – and in scores of other countries around the world.

For the moment, however, it’s good to feel buoyed by the uncompromising efforts of a fine campaigner – a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize – who seems to have got under the skin of the outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (for whom he voted in the election after the chaos of Charles Taylor’s reign).

Johnson Sirleaf is such a darling of the “international community” (that is, Western industrialised countries) that it’s salutary to hear a very different view from the grassroots.

What of the film itself? It’s an excellent documentary, that skilfully shows how the highly committed but otherwise seemingly ordinary Siakor goes about his work. It has time for some interesting domestic scenes with his wife, who clearly admires his resolution but would like a little more comfort and family time.

Mobile phones get a starring role, as Siakor and his Sustainable Development Institute deploy them to gather evidence of the “web of fraud” through which numbers of forestry permits are illegally granted and then abused by the licence holders. Pressure by Siakor and colleagues finally results in a government inquiry – just as they had helped nail Taylor – which upholds the protesters’ claims.

It’s also interesting to see the state and then private security forces gradually appearing in the video coverage.

As if a crushing burden of poverty is not heavy enough for most Liberians to bear, as well as the policies of a self-regarding elite, ebola suddenly erupts. Siakor observes that the problem wasn’t the collapse of the health system: the problem was that no health system existed.

On the personal front, the Siakor family escapes ebola, but his father-in-law dies of diabetes complications because there is no care to spare for his treatment. On the political front, the outbreak leads to a state of emergency, which is a time when money can be stolen. During the epidemic the government signs a commercial concession agreement allocating land in an area occupied by one of the country’s hardest hit communities.

Don’t be misled by my anger and frustration: this film is not a boring polemic - it’s an entertaining profile of a man doing his best with few resources. There are not enough Siakors, so let’s enjoy, applaud and be inspired by the few there are.

+ https://www.silasthemovie.com/investigation/ Allegations made in Silas

·      Silas is showing at the Barbican, 6.30pm, on 16 March, as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Info: https://ff.hrw.org/london/ https://www.silasthemovie.com



Image by Silas


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