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Voice-Over Transcript


This is Fanta Fofana. She is a home health aide, originally from the war-torn, West African nation of Sierra Leone. She left home shortly after the tragic death of her husband, mainly to support her three, young children. She is studying for her citizenship exam in the hopes of bringing them to America.

Sometimes her favorite client helps her study. This is David Kpormakpor. Yet he is mostly known as "Prof" or "The Professor." He is 71 years old and requires twenty-four hour nursing care.  

Ten years ago, he lived under very different circumstances...

Former law professor and Supreme Court Justice David D. Kpormakpor served as Interim President of Liberia between 1994-1995, during its disastrous civil war. He was appointed by a handful of warlords who had been searching for a neutral person to chair the Council of State of Liberia's transitional government.

Kpormakor was an ideal choice. Born far from the capital, he was the first member of his family to read or write. As a young man, he impressed a missionary from Mississippi who secured him a place at the prestigious College of West Africa. He finished third in his class and won scholarships to San Francisco State University and UCLA. He returned home, became a professor of law, and was appointed to the Liberian Supreme Court. His reputation as incorruptible and perhaps a bit naïve made him a superb candidate for the warlords who were looking to install an uncomplicated figurehead of the government.

As Interim President, he had little power beyond the capital; and even there one of his generals seized the mansion in what amounted to a failed coup. Ultimately, Kpormakpor left office with nothing. He spent the next two years living on a military based guarded by African peacekeepers who broke into his home twice, stealing everything he owned.  

In 1997, with his health declining and the ruthless dictator Charles Taylor coming to power, Kpormakpor returned to America. He settled in this housing project in Park Hill, Staten Island, where nearly 6,000 Liberians have sought refuge from war and poverty. He has lived here alone, on welfare, for nearly a decade.

It is morning in Park Hill, the night shift is over, and Fanta is about to replace Raffia at Prof's apartment.


Corruption is endemic in Liberian politics.   By consequence of his presence in Park Hill, it is likely that Kpormakpor was unique in that he did not use his political office for his own ends, for this reason, he is a peculiar figure in the Park Hill community.   Some people believe he isn't normal, that he stole millions and is simply storing it away somewhere. Others accuse him of being a fool, for not taking what was rightfully his.

Production Notes

i. pre-production

In September 2005, I began a year-long video production seminar in NYU's Certificate Program in Culture and Media along with eight other graduate students. We each drafted treatments, pitched our ideas, and began to explore different possibilities.

I was interested in exploring the lives of Africans in New York because I had been participating in some projects that provided services for African immigrants and asylum seekers. It was something of a continuation of the work I had begun as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi a few years earlier.  

When I moved to New York in 2003, I shared an apartment in Brooklyn with two college friends. Up the street, a young vendor had set up shop near the subway and we came to know one another. He had fled Sierra Leone during their civil war and somehow found his way to New York. He was receiving medical treatment and legal and social services from the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture.   One day I accompanied him to the hospital and soon after I was a volunteer ESL teacher in the program.  

I soon became aware of NYU's International Trauma Studies Program, and the work they were doing with the sizeable Liberian community in Park Hill, Staten Island. The program director, Dr. Jack Saul, invited me to a community meeting and introduced me to Jacob Massaquoi, a Liberian human rights activist and the program director for African Refuge, a community based not-for-profit. We became friends and I began to spend much of my free time in Park Hill.  

One afternoon, I arrived at Jacob's apartment and he said, "Oh, Jason, I'm glad you're here...I'd like to introduce you to the President of Liberia." Then he started laughing. I laughed too and extended my hand to an old man sitting on his couch who said, "How do you know I'm not?" It was an awkward moment. Jacob laughed hysterically and introduced the gentleman as Mr. David D. Kpormakpor—former law professor, Supreme Court justice and, yes, one of Liberia's heads of state during its civil war. He was known mostly as "Prof".

When the time came to select a documentary subject I thought of Prof. I hadn't seen him for months, however. He had been confined to his apartment while he recovered from two surgeries that repaired a blood clot in his brain.  Jacob (who is featured in the letter writing scene) volunteered to meet with Prof on my behalf. A week later Jacob, Prof, and I considered the possibilities of a production. The surgeries had slowed him down and he expressed anxiety about the quality of his memory. He was typically coy and humble.   He argued that he was not an interesting enough subject to warrant a film. It was only after Jacob argued that the film would be an important document for Liberian history that he agreed. We began shooting the following week. The church scene was the first shoot.  

ii. production

Questions of focus and characterization were particularly challenging in this production.

Details of Prof's fascinating biography can be gleaned from the interview montage section (found in the special features on the DVD)—tales of $15 million dollar Supreme Court cases, failed coups, imprisonment, negotiations with heads of state and warlords, journeys through America, plundered homes, pilgrimages made to Mississippi cemeteries, and funny anecdotes from his university days or meetings with Nelson Mandela.   Furthermore, each of these events and stories played out across a complex social and historical canvas.

How much of Prof's story could I tell in 15 minutes (the seminar's target)? And how much social and historical context would be necessary to give meaning to that story? Moreover, what would the story and/or argument be?  

At first, I was most interested in the idea that a former President of Liberia could come to live alone, on welfare in a Staten Island housing project. Yet none of the Liberians I met found Prof's circumstances particularly extraordinary: either Prof came to live in Park Hill because he did not take money when he had the chance, or he did take money while in office and squandered it. Some argued that Prof really didn't have access to lucrative deals during his time in the Liberian government, yet others offered first-hand accounts that he did. Regardless, it is certain that Prof had little power during his time in the Presidential mansion, that he had fallen on hard times like so many of the Liberians in the Park Hill community.   

As time passed, questions such as "How could this happen?" and "Did he really have the chance to steal money?" became less and less important. It was only then that I realized that I had initially mistaken the premise of the film for the subject; and the subject really was the man himself. It was Prof's character and personality that sustained my interest through the project. By March, I had come to understand that I was not really making an ethnographic film or an advocacy film per se, but a portrait. While this realization was important for the film's direction, it led to other difficulties.

Prof rarely left his apartment, he spoke slowly, his memory was patchy, and sometimes he fell ill and shoots had to be cut or canceled. More importantly, there was an alarming gap between my understanding of the man and my representation of him in my early footage. The man I was coming to know was more elusive and complex than the plain, old man I was capturing on videotape. Prof could express a number of emotions in the same instance—he could be terribly funny and playful, yet also stern, puzzling, and contemplative. While the man in my footage was a victim, a shadow of his former self; the man I knew was objective, critical, and even strategic.   He was not a victim. He was a man who had a strong sense of self, who made conscious choices according to his values. Yet how to access these qualities with the camera?

Fanta Fofana replaced Bamba Toure (who is featured in the pharmacy scene) as Prof's daytime home health aide sometime in January, and I came to realize that Prof's main sociality came from his nurses. One day, I noticed Fanta reviewing questions for her citizenship exam. I asked her if Prof ever helped her study. She laughed and said that he usually found a way to say no. This sparked an amusing argument between the two. On the next shoot, I asked Prof to quiz Fanta, and they agreed.  

The citizenship exam solved many of my problems. It characterized Prof as exactly that—a professor; and offered some insight into the depth of his character and the range of his personality. It also served to introduce Fanta as a major and indispensable character in the film. Finally, it expressed the great range of roles they play in each other's lives—employee and employer, student and teacher, nurse and employee, or, in some ways, mother and son, daughter and father, husband and wife, or simply good friends.

It should go without saying that there is a naked bulb sitting dead-center throughout much of the film. Many crew members alerted me to the fact that the final project would be back-lit, over-exposed, and grainy. Indeed, I considered bringing Prof a lampshade and lighting the scene more responsibly, yet something prevented me from doing so. For some reason, it felt wrong to manipulate the environment in that particular way. From my point of view, a naked bulb lit that space, and so a naked bulb would light that film. Not a pretty picture, but for me it is an honest one, and one not easily forgotten.

When the knock came on the door I kept filming. The debate that followed "Divine's" interruption struck me as the most important moment my four months of footage. Eventually, I decided to structure the film around the citizenship quiz and to use the debate regarding Divine as the climax. In many ways, it also response to the question repeatedly posed by Prof throughout the film. Every other scene—the voiceover with the archival footage and photographs, the interview coupled the images of domestic space, the church, the letter-writing and the pharmacy - serves to inform that moment. The notion that Prof would (or even could) do things differently, that he might "take the money" is revealed at this moment to be little more than an artifact of the imagination. Prof is who he is, perhaps like we all are. In his own words, "some people are just that way."

About the Filmmaker

Jason Price was born in Nutley, New Jersey in 1977.   He served in Peace Corps Malawi and Americorps.   He holds an MA in Social Anthropology and a Certificate in Culture and Media from New York University, and a BA from Middlebury College in Vermont.   This is his first film.