[ 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. Soon after, I became a volunteer ESL teacher with the program.
I 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 where I met Jacob Massaquoi, a Liberian human rights activist and the program director for African Refuge, a community based nonprofit. 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.
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 to repair 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 met to consider the possibilities of a production. The surgeries had slowed Prof down and he expressed anxiety about the quality of his memory. He was typically coy and humble. He argued that he was not interesting enough 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. he church scene was the first shoot.
[ Production ]
Questions of focus and characterization were particularly challenging in this production.
Details from Prof’s rich biography can be gleaned from the interview montage (found in the special features section 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 had been 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.
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, 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 representations of him in the 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 could be 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.
When the knock came on the door I kept filming. The debate that followed “Divine’s” interruption struck me as the most important moment in all of my five months’ worth of shooting. In privileging this little intrusion, and the characters’ response to it, I attempt to provide my own answer to the question repeatedly posed by Prof throughout the film—to weigh in, so to speak, on the debate he has with himself.
Every other scene—the voiceover, the interview, the church, the letter, and the pharmacy—serves to inform that moment.
[ Post-production ]
The class logged, captured, and edited as we shot, and worked doggedly to meet a May 8th deadline. One week prior to the screening I had something like a 40-minute rough cut (the target was 15 minutes). It was only through the patience and goodwill of Cheryl Furjanic and Jeff Himpele that I managed to get the film down to 22 minutes. The film then sat dormant for six months while I attended to other obligations.
In December 2006 I came back to the film and completely revised the first five minutes based on some useful criticism from Ed Sherwood.
The final push that has brought the film from class project to, with any luck, something more, has been made with Ya-Hsuan Huang, whose contributions to the film are immeasurable.