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In an African voice: a profile of Sorious Samura

About the author
Caspar Melville is editor of the New Humanist magazine. He was Executive Editor and co-editor of the Media & the Net theme on openDemocracy.

Sorious Samura has become one of the more familiar African journalists on television in recent years, at least to viewers of CNN, and the UK’s Channel 4. Did I say more familiar? Strike that. I mean one of the only African journalists to be seen in a landscape conventionally dominated by white BBC correspondents, and their gonzo flak-jacketed US colleagues.

Read also on openDemocracy: “Re-presenting Africa: an interview with Sorious Samura”

So the fact that Samura has authored and presented five essay-length programmes on contemporary Africa, broadcast worldwide, is itself a story – even more when considering that he started life in the shanty-town fringes of Freetown, Sierra Leone. And it’s a good story: of luck, pluck and professional guile.

Samura’s new TV report – a filmed ‘essay’ focused on rural Ethiopia called Surviving Hunger (called Living with Hunger in the UK) - uses all these qualities to stimulate interest and debate around both Africa and its media depiction. It is a film that depicts experiences of hunger, poverty and endurance, and provokes questions of the ethics and purposes of the documentary form in the age of ‘reality TV’.

Who is Sorious Samura?

Sorious SamuraSorious Samura

Sorious Samura was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, forty years ago. He left school at fifteen with few qualifications. It was chance, combined with a sense of outrage as the civil war in Sierra Leone went unrecorded and unreported by local or international media, that led him in his early 20s to pick up a camera, and teach himself to use it.

Through his involvement with a local theatre company he found a video camera and used the library at the British Council and the American Legion to learn the rudiments of production. He began to work as a ‘fixer’ for foreign film crews, and charities, providing translation, access and latterly raw footage and story ideas he originated himself.

In 1986, he was spotted by a crew working on a film for the Red Cross and hired as an assistant cameraman. He began to work regularly as a cameraman for USAid and Unicef, recording the social and political chaos he saw around him. Samura, despite working for CNN and the BBC, has never had any formal training in journalism. His style is largely free from the constraints of the conventional ‘reporter on the spot’ techniques of the seasoned news reporters who dominate coverage of Africa on global TV screens. His approach is inquiring and direct, even naive. Eschewing the depersonalised ‘objectivity’ which is standard practice in news media, he continually enters the frame of his stories, converses with, rather than interviews, his informants, is frequently baffled; his face registers the emotional impact of what he is reporting.

The principles which underpin this style – forged in anger at the shallow, sensational and uncontextualised way in which the world’s media represented Africa – are to dig below the surface, to allow Africans to speak of the complexity and diversity of their experiences – to tell the truth, and to bring this truth home to African and western viewers alike.

The only TV station in Sierra Leone had ceased broadcasting in 1983. Samura felt that historic events were in danger of being forgotten, or remain framed solely by the concerns of western news media. In January 1999, Samura and his camera recorded the horrific violence accompanying the incursion into Freetown of Foday Sankoh’s rebel army.

Samura’s visceral footage of the events in the capital’s streets brought him attention and respect; that year he was awarded two of the most prestigious awards for freelance cameramen – the Rory Peck and Mo Amin awards. He was the first person to win both.

Sorious Samura’s performance at the Rory Peck awards in London in 1999 was typically upfront. It revealed both his fearlessness, and his street-sharpened timing. Addressing a room packed with many of the most influential news broadcasters and producers from the world’s media, he, in his own words, ‘played the race card’.

He accused the world’s media of ignoring what had happened in Sierra Leone - while similar atrocities in Kosovo had recently dominated the news agenda - because those who were dying were black. “Where were you,” he demanded of his audience, “when my country was on its knees?”

His excoriating jeremiad was met first with shocked silence, then a standing ovation. Displaying what had become the trademark Samura mix of righteous anger and good timing, this single speech secured a career in global broadcasting. This strategic use of anger was a typically conscious and successful bid to open the door on a global broadcasting career.

But he has declined the job offers he has since received from both the BBC and CNN, preferring to attach himself to the small independent London based company run by BBC news veteran Ron McCullagh, Insight News TV. McCullagh had been in the audience in Barcelona; he went on to help turn the raw footage into the documentary Cry Freetown, which has since won an Emmy, a Bafta and a Peabody award.

The series of films he has made since Cry Freetown, including Exodus (about migration from Africa) and Walking on Ashes (an investigation of the Ugandan ‘success’ story), have probed some of the central questions in contemporary Africa – violence, corruption, internal displacement – in a manner both engaging and confrontational.

His reputation as a controversialist was underlined when he accepted the commission to make a programme about the tensions between the Afro-Caribbean and African populations of London (a commission declined by a series of black British filmmakers unwilling to tackle this particular hot potato in public). Samura displayed no such scruples. Black on Black was sharply criticised by Britain’s black media – including the prominent black newspaper The Voice, which accused Samura of washing the black community’s dirty laundry in public and implying that violence between black populations was of more significance than violence against them. He remains unbowed by the frosty reception, and continues to assert that issues such as this are properly aired in the mass media.

Samura’s latest film similarly does not seek to sidestep controversy. Surviving Hunger was filmed during a five-week stay in a remote Ethiopian village where the local population live on the very threshold of starvation. The film employs the techniques of ‘reality TV’ – video-diary narrative, an absence of ‘experts and analysis’, on-camera crack-ups – to tell the vivid story of Ethiopia, twenty years after Live Aid, living with the reality of daily hunger, and the likelihood of a devastating famine.

Surviving Hunger is undoubtedly powerful, in its portrayal of an Ethiopian community determined to survive, and to help themselves, living on the doorstep of ruin. But it throws the viewer into a quandary. How far should television go in representing the hopelessness of this existence? Even if Samura’s motive is to show that these people are not victims but agents, their powerlessness is palpable, and not so far from the images we associate with full-blown famine.

“This film is not about me, it’s about them,” he insists. Yet he is our surrogate, much of the drama relates to the difficulties he finds in living on their diet, and the moments at which he is forced to break his self-imposed rules – flagging a ride from the camera crew on the long march to Lalibela, borrowing money for chicken from the cameramen to feed his fellow-travellers. In the end, is even a clever adaptation of the ‘reality TV’ format the appropriate vehicle for representing this crisis; is it likely to improve the situation, to force a change in the way aid is distributed? Judge for yourself, and let us know what you think.

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