Liberia ’77 doc maker talks about healing a war-torn nation

"If I'd have known how hard that was going to be, I'm not sure I would have got so involved in the project," Jeff Topham told Playback Daily.
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Jeff Topham’s feature documentary Liberia ’77 for TVO started with a box full of his father’s photos of Liberia in the 1970s, when he and his brother Andrew were little boys and his family were Canadian ex-pats in west Africa.

“Liberia was a place I always wanted to go back to since being a kid. But during the 1980s and 1990s, it was just not a place to go,” Topham told Playback Daily about Liberia’s long-running, ruinous civil war.

By 2010, peace was restored to Liberia after two outbreaks of civil conflict.

So Topham, accompanied by his brother and documentary producer Melanie Wood, returned to the country of his childhood to re-shoot their father’s by-gone era photos.

Where to start their journey?

“I didn’t know what to expect. I expected that something would happen,” Topham recalled.

While first pitching the documentary to TVO, they decided the film’s deus ex machina would be to tell Liberia’s story by explaining what happened to their 1970s housekeeper, James, who cared for them as kids as they played in paradise, along endless beaches, or in the thick jungle, and even with a pet chimp.

But when Topham and his team landed in Monrovia, they discovered not only was their former housekeeper no where to be found, but so too were photos of pre-war Liberia.

People they met as they searched for James the housekeeper had no photographic record of their own lives after it had been destroyed during the civil war.

In time, the Topham brothers discover James the housekeeper was no longer alive, but they did find his family, and especially his son, Jefferson, whom they emotionally befriend.

But suddenly, an initial hope of the documentary to reshoot their tattered 1970s family photos took on immediate urgency.

And it didn’t stop there. The dispassionate focus of Topham’s camera vanished as he and his brother struggled to come to terms with what became of people that his family had known in the 1970s, just before civil war ruined the nation.

“If I’d have know how hard that was going to be, I’m not sure I would have go so involved in the project,” Topham explained.

So much for his original film idea about taking photos in Liberia.

“I wasn’t to be the main focus of the film, and I didn’t want to be the main focus,” he insisted.

All that changed when they met up with Jefferson, the son of James the housekeeper, and felt a responsibility for his well-being and that of his family.

The emotional force of confronting post-war Liberia well after the paradise of their youth had disappeared became even more stark when Topham watched endless footage of himself weeping while he and his brother talked to a stoic Jefferson and fellow Liberians about their war-time experiences.

In the end, Topham had to focus on his role as a director, not pulling back or turning off the camera as he got emotional while capturing footage for Liberia ’77, or when assembling the film in the edit suite.

“As a filmmaker, it was difficult knowing the best parts of the tape are the hardest parts of this character, which was actually me,” Topham recalled.

“I thank Melanie (Wood) for allowing me to walk that line,” he added.

If anything, watching himself endlessly tearful was key to Topham finding the threads of his film in the edit suite.

“If you watch a scene the one time, you have the one reaction to those situations, and you might not have an understanding of what’s going on,” the director explained.

But as he watched the same scenes many times over, Topham developed more of a sense for why he and others around him reacted as they did.

“I watched how my brother dealt with things, and how villagers dealt,” he added, noting how the luxury of instant replay in the edit suite changes how he sees a scene, distinct from when he first experienced it.

Now that the documentary Liberia ’77 is completed and going to air after a run on the festival circuit, the filmmakers are preparing to hold a photo exhibition in Monrovia, “Liberia at the National Museum,” this fall.

The aim is to showcase rare images of a peaceful and prosperous Liberia, before its civil wars, so a nation’s population gets a better sense of where they have come from, and a chance at a brighter future.

“There’s close to 2000 photos and to take a collection back and put on a show and screen the doc there as well, that’s really something to look forward to,” Topham said.

Liberia ’77 is to air on TVO on May 23 at 9 p.m.

Photo: Jeff Topham / libera77.com