The small country of Liberia, situated on the west coast of Africa, has a strange history. It was formed in 1822 by Americans looking to give some recently freed slaves a better shot at a new life but over the last half a century the country has fallen into disarray and violent chaos due to an ongoing civil war that is dangerously close to destroying the country from the inside.
The 2003 documentary, Liberia - An Uncivil War, attempts to explain both sides of the conflict. The country's president, Charles Taylor, who refused to step down, has long been accused of running a corrupt administration while a group of rebels calling themselves Liberians United For Reconciliation And Democracy (or, LURD) have been taking control of various parts of the country. Their army is made up of young men, mostly teenagers, and some of them are rumored to have resorted to acts of cannibalism believing that it will give them strength over their enemies. Caught in the middle of the conflict are thousands upon thousands of innocent people who had hoped that the United States would intervene - that didn't happen.
Director Jonathon Stack went to the capital city of Monrovia, cameras in tow, and captured a portrait of the country's turmoil that sheds some welcome light on a subject that most North Americans honestly don't know very much about. He was there while the LURD forces moved in on the city and was able to talk to those in power at the time of this event, including President Taylor and a lot of the city's citizens. Everyone sits and waits for United Nations forces to show up and intervene but it turns out to be a very, very long wait indeed... one that never really pays off for anyone involved.
Liberia - An Uncivil War is not an easy film to watch. Much of the footage shot during the conflict is grisly and disturbing and the camera does not shy away from the real life horrors of war. Some archival footage puts the conflict into a much needed historical perspective and goes a long way towards explaining why and how this conflict arose in the first place while shots of locals burying their dead serves to remind us how very real this all is. Interview clips with politicians, rebels, members of Taylor's party and others explain the various sides while clips illustrating the country's religious factions shows the more peaceful side of the nation and provides an interesting contrast.
The documentary wisely avoids getting too deeply mired in the partisan politics, rather, it lets both sides explain their take on the issues in their own words and allows viewers to make up their own minds about the situation. The film makes no qualms about pointing a finger at the American government (or in broader terms, the western world as a whole) for not intervening faster than they did, but the reasons for that are quite sound and it's hard not to agree after you watch the film, particularly when you consider that the mainstream media almost entirely brushed over this conflict.
Liberia - An Uncivil War is presented in an interlaced 1.33.1 fullframe transfer. The film was not shot under the most ideal of circumstances and it was made with a digital video camera rather than shot on film. As such, the source material doesn't contain the same kind of detail or color depth that you might expect to see. That said, while some scenes look a bit washed out and a bit soft, everything is perfectly watchable from start to finish.
The sole audio option on this DVD is an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track. There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided though for the scenes that do not feature English dialogue, burned in English subtitles appear automatically on the screen. The interview segments sound pretty good while some of the more 'on the move' footage doesn't come through with quite the same amount of clarity. Overall, however, things sound good enough.
The only really substantial extra on this release is President Taylor's Farewell Speech (23:45), which Jonathon Stack recorded when it was given just a couple of days before he was exiled from office. Delivered in English in a room that, judging by the flashbulbs, was probably populated by a bunch of reporters, it's a little odd to see Taylor thank his country for the opportunity which he was given and to sum up his feelings around the circumstances under which all of this occurred.
Aside from that, look for a text biography that gives some background on the filmmakers, a text piece about Docurama films, trailers for four other Docurama releases, some static menus and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase is a thick booklet containing Docurama's current catalogue.
A striking and often times tragic look at a country torn apart and the myriad of reasons for that tear, Liberia - An Uncivil War isn't always easy viewing but it's a very well made film that provides plenty of food for though. Important viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in world politics, this one comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.