Clive Patterson’s gripping and inspiring documentary, Sing, Freetown, follows journalist Sorious Samura on a journey from his home in London to the place where he was raised - Sierra Leone. Samura wants to go on an adventure and challenge the prevailing narrative about Sierra Leone - one that has primarily focused on war, corruption and disease.
Samura is all too aware of his role in perpetuating this narrative. His documentaries (for CNN, Channel 4 and the BBC) have won two Emmy Awards and tackled the toughest issues in the region including civil war, starvation, AIDs, corruption and attitudes to homosexually.
In Sing, Freetown, we meet a man tired of this negativity and the damaging legacy of colonial rule. Samura decides to create a major new play to remind people of Sierra Leone’s rich culture and history (it has been called the Athens of West Africa) and restore a sense of national pride.
He turns to his best friend and mentor, Charlie Haffner, a famous playwright from Sierra Leone, for help. Theirs is a charming friendship and together they embark upon a journey around the country, conducting research for their play. “We want to tell a different story about Sierra Leone,” Samura says. “I just hope everything goes smoothly.”
Everything does not go smoothly, however. There is a lot at stake. Reputations, friendships and the fate of the documentary itself hangs in the balance. Samura’s passion for his project - and his ambition for the play - puts Haffner under immense pressure. We begin to fear that the endeavour will fail and destroy Samura and Haffner’s friendship in the process.
“Sorious’s journey is ultimately one about reconciling the divisions in his identity," Patterson eplains. "It’s a process which finds reflection in the tensions that arise between himself and his great friend and mentor, Charlie Haffner. It is also reflected in Sorious and Charlie’s own description of the predicament facing Sierra Leone, and much of Sub-Saharan Africa – a fractured identity due to the damaging legacy of colonial rule. This multi-layered grappling with notions of identity, at both the personal and national level, is what I believe this film is about.”
Relationships feel so important in Sing, Freetown. Longtime friends, Samura and Haffner have incredible stories to share. Meanwhile, Patterson and Samura have worked together for many years. This closeness enables Patterson to dive deep and present us with a fascinating character study - highlighting the similarities and differences between the two men.
Samura is processing a life spent exposing negative news stories about Africa. His career is in stark contrast with Haffner’s work and view of Sierra Leone. Sing, Freetown explores the impact of such negativity on a personal, national and global level. The film also examines the role and responsibility of the news and current affairs industry in telling damaging and limiting stories.
The play’s importance cannot be overstated - a much-needed platform to restore a country’s identity and largely forgotten history. However, its fate is often in jeopardy and, as the tension mounts and we become increasingly invested in their journey, we fear what will happen if the adventure ends in failure. This would, of course, be devastating for all involved.
No spoilers here. What I can reveal is that, as the documentary moves into its suspenseful final act, it feels reassuring that Sing, Freetown exists to document the venture. Patterson’s film is a wonderful, visually stunning and inspiring record of Samura and Haffner’s journey, their experiences and how proud they are of Sierra Leone.
“As an outsider, I have a connection to our intended audience and some of the perceptions that prevail,” says Patterson. “I hope this film will challenge those perceptions. I wanted to create a visual and narrative experience that allowed audiences to discover the richness of Sierra Leone in much the same way I had, in the company of two incredible companions who could illuminate both the nation’s culture and beauty, and inherent tensions and difficulties, with passion and eloquence”.