Lansana Mansaray, aka Barmmy Boy, is a director of photography, filmmaker and musician who lives in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
How I started out
I got the name Barmmy Boy because I used to fish for a living. My parents could not feed all my brothers and sisters and me, and ‘barmmy’ is the local name for grand tilapia. I was always interested in creative projects and music and wanted to make music videos for myself. I was a rapper back then.
Desperate to move on after a ten-year civil war, I jumped at the chance to become part of a workshop for young artists, where I was given a camera for the very first time and learned how to edit footage. Before I returned the camera, I made a music video and filmed a day in the life of my younger brother.
Learning the basics
As a result, I got the chance to go to Hull in the UK for two months in 2007 and learn about filmmaking, supported by the British Council. When I came home, I established myself as a freelance filmmaker and co-founded a media company. Our office is a hub for creative minds to meet and share ideas, and our mission is for Sierra Leoneans to tell their own stories.
The challenges of filmmaking in Sierra Leone
Making films in Sierra Leone is not easy. Funding is difficult for filmmakers everywhere, but we have no support at all. Most of our movies are ‘no budget’. We have three local television stations, but none of them commission films or pay for content.
There is not even much of a local audience for documentaries. Local cinemas generally show only the English Premier League and Champions League football, and a few show films from Bollywood, Nollywood or the Philippines. It’s disheartening that no local films are screened. I make a decent living because I’ve worked hard to build up an international reputation, but most filmmakers in Sierra Leone cannot.
Getting the right equipment is a big headache. It's not just the considerable expense, but also that there is no shop in town to buy professional gear, and nowhere that rents it either. You can't buy online from Amazon or Ebay because shipping to Sierra Leone is often not possible. Canon DSLR cameras are very popular (Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 7D, etc.). These work well, but over time the extremely high humidity and dust can cause them to malfunction and get fungus on the lens. Repairing this equipment ourselves is impossible as cameras are so complex nowadays, and in Sierra Leone there are no professional repair shops. So when things break, I can only get them fixed when I travel overseas, or if I ask friends who are travelling.
Even when we can get hold of equipment, learning how to use it is still a challenge. YouTube tutorials are great for learning about new technologies and skills, but outside the city, internet access is a problem. Because the electricity supply is unreliable, all of our gear has to be battery-powered and we have to travel everywhere with lots of spare batteries. If I am filming for more than a day in remote villages, I take along a generator, oil and petrol.
Getting to locations, even within the city, is hard. Our public transport system is not ideal for moving around with equipment. The crazy rush and crush to get on board the buses, called poda-podas, can lead to expensive equipment being damaged. I have seen laptops and cameras broken in the squash. Shared taxis are better, but often there are three people plus small children in the back, and another adult in the front, so there isn’t much room for equipment. The problems don't end once you're crammed inside, as the city’s legendary traffic jams often delay shoots by one hour or more as everybody struggles to get to the right place.
You can hire a taxi for your own use, either for the whole day or one hour, at a price that depends on your bargaining skills. This is what most foreign filmmakers do when they visit. Or it’s easy to hire a 4x4 for $100 per day within the city or $150 a day (not including petrol) if you are leaving the Freetown peninsula. This makes things a lot easier for visitors, and also means that you have extra hands to help out, since many drivers are very willing to assist when you get to your destination and can prove very useful. But the prices are beyond the pocket of most local filmmakers.
Local relationships are vital
In the extremely deprived communities around Freetown, filming is challenging. Even with official permission to film, it’s important to talk to the local chief or headman, and to build up a relationship with local people. When I go into communities with a lot of young people, I always ask for the youth chairman, and make that person feel important to the process. They often assign somebody to help carry equipment, and as these guys are known in the community, it makes it easier to be accepted. Showing people a photo you took of them, or a short clip of what you just did, can also help you build trust. It shows that you are not doing anything demeaning to the community.
In the villages, things may be more relaxed, as people in the provinces are considered to be more easy-going. They also have much more time, and people constantly crowd around to watch everything that we do. This can be a problem, as they don’t understand that their constant talking can make recording sound a nightmare.
In the city, there is endless loud music, traffic noise, and shouting; in the provinces the trials are roosters crowing, cassava being pounded and children crying. And everywhere in Sierra Leone, people have very loud mobile phone ringtones! My advice to anybody working in Sierra Leone is, before any shoot, respectfully ask everyone to silence their phones or turn them off altogether.
Getting the right clearance and support
When I filmed aerial shots in the centre of town with a drone, I wrote to the Sierra Leone police for clearance. I was given the go-ahead and two police personnel to help with the crowd in some areas, which made work a lot easier. I also had a famous local comedian, Vamboi, as production manager, who kept people entertained and away from me whilst filming. His presence gave me access to places I wanted to film.
The future of film in West Africa
Despite the challenges, the future of film-making in West Africa is bright. We are natural storytellers and can tell our stories our own way, especially if we learn from other countries that have a properly functioning film industry. I see the success of Nigerian and Ghanaian films, and think we could build our own industry in Sierra Leone, despite having a smaller market, but we are still trying to get our house in order. We need an administrative office to help filmmakers, and a proper cinema. And in the future, it would be wonderful to get local productions onto online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.
Barmmy Boy's film 'Freetown: This City Belongs to Everyone' marked the launch of Hull 2017’s Roots and Routes and Freedom seasons. The film mirrors 'Hull: this City Belongs to Everyone', which was made as part of Hull’s 2012 bid for City of Culture status.
In 2017, Hull is the UK City of Culture, with the British Council as an international partner. One of the programmes is underway is Hull-Freetown 2017, a series of cultural and educational projects between the twinned cities.