Video: Liberia, Madison, and "A Film Never Made"

January 30, 2014

Emmanuel Urey, a child of Liberia's civil war, has journeyed from a rural upbringing in a small interior village in the West African Republic of Liberia, to higher education at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Having experienced vicious disputes over land during and after the war, Urey is committed to helping his country address land security problems that threaten a fragile peace.

In a chance meeting with Gregg Mitman, the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, Urey unexpectedly learns of a rare cache of film shot in Liberia by a 1926 Harvard scientific expedition sponsored by Firestone Plantations Company. 

The unedited footage juxtaposes remarkable moving images of mythic chiefs, village life, and tribal customs with uncomfortable glimpses into forced labor, inequitable social practices, and clear-cutting on traditional land. The footage is at once a national treasure and a painful and potentially explosive reminder of Liberia's deep land conflicts.

Determined to reconnect the present with the past, Urey takes the footage home, traveling the streets of Monrovia and remote rural villages, where crowds gather around his iPhone, iPad or laptop. Memories of people, places and traditions, whose roots extend deep into the land, are stirred. Feelings of nostalgia, anger, wonder, frustration, pride and hurt are evoked. And when land disputes erupt in Urey’s own village, the burden of tradition, captured on film, elicits both sorrow and hope.

"A Film Never Made" captures the struggles of Urey and his family, of tribal elders, and of restless youth as they weave the past into a more inclusive future.