Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

War reporter: 'My camera is my weapon'

From David McKenzie, Jessica Ellis and Lillian Leposo, CNN
October 31, 2012 -- Updated 1656 GMT (0056 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sorious Samura is an award-winning photojournalist and film-maker from Sierra Leone
  • He is famous for embedding himself with his film's subjects to tell their stories
  • Samura first came to prominence with his 2000 documentary, "Cry Freetown"

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

(CNN) -- As he strode on stage to accept the 1999 Rory Peck award for hard news journalism, Sorious Samura struggled to find the words that would fit the moment.

He hadn't expected to win the prestigious prize and so hadn't prepared a speech.

Looking out across audience, the pioneering video journalist made the snap decision to speak his mind rather than proffer faux gratification.

"I stood there and thought of my people," he recalls, before asking, "Where were you when my people were killing, raping and maiming themselves?"

Samura recalls 'black on black' racism
'Africa's Michael Moore' on storytelling

"You are tripping over cables in Kosovo, why didn't you come and cover our war and now you are clapping for me. You can have your award."

See also: Child soldier on killing in Sierra Leone

I was just hell-bent on actually using my own weapon, which was the camera, to call for help
Sorious Samura

In a decorated film career that has also brought Peabody and Emmy awards, Samura has rarely submitted his professional or personal style to convention.

This strident nonconformity has made him a compelling storyteller -- a fact perhaps best emphasized by the on and off camera tactics he employed to make "Cry Freetown," his debut film about the brutal civil war that tore apart his native Sierra Leone.

Sorious Samura's style of documentary-making sees him embedding himself with his subjects such as during his documentary filming with refugees on the Sudan-Chad border. Sorious Samura's style of documentary-making sees him embedding himself with his subjects such as during his documentary filming with refugees on the Sudan-Chad border.
Filmmaker Sorious Samura
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
Filmmaker Sorious Samura on the road Filmmaker Sorious Samura on the road

When the notoriously violent forces of the Revolutionary United Front marched on Freetown, the country's capital in 1999, Samura, unlike many of his colleagues and compatriots, refused to flee the city.

Instead he waited for the rebel army, gained their trust and embedded himself with their rank and file soldiers.

His plan was to document the violence, torture, rape and use of child soldiers by the RUF and their government backed opponents which came to define the conflict.

Read related: How diamonds fuel Africa's conflicts

Samura hoped his film would make it out of Sierra Leone and force the international community to intervene to end the war.

"I was just hell-bent on actually using my own weapon, which was the camera, to call for help because we were just left by ourselves to die. Nothing was going to stop me," he says.

"For me there was just no choice. I had to go out and film and hopefully stay alive and get the world to see what is happening in my country."

See also: Kenyan reporters win CNN journalist awards

To the untrained eye such tactics may seem reckless. For Samura however, experiencing his subject matter is an essential part of the storytelling process.

He has assiduously applied this concept to all of his documentary film work.

More recent efforts have focused on the topics of hunger in Ethiopia, aids patients in Zambia and the plight of refugees in Sudan.

In each project Samura has immersed himself in the lives of his protagonists in an attempt to comprehend the challenges of their everyday existence.

If I really need to tell these people's stories, if I am the driver who will articulate their suffering, then I have to experience it
Sorious Samura

When he filmed a displaced Sudanese family in his 2004 film, "Living with Refugees," Samura only permitted himself to eat when they ate and drink from the same sources, mostly dried-up rivers, as he followed them across dangerous terrain from Darfur to Chad.

"To understand a man's problem you have got to walk at least a mile in his shoes," Samura says.

"If I really need to tell these people's stories, if I am the driver who will articulate their suffering, then I have to experience it."

"It is sometimes easy for people to say, I understand what you are going through, I can imagine...that is not true. Sometimes you can only live it to believe, to understand."

See also: From war orphan to teen ballerina

But by repeatedly drawing attention to such traumatic and challenging subject matter, some critics have accused Samura of focusing only on the negative in Africa.

The filmmaker who himself had to scavenge for food in his Freetown youth rejects this viewpoint out of hand. He says you have to tell these stories no matter how uncomfortable it may make some people feel.

"There are things that I believe that I can say that ought to be said about Africa....even if they are harsh realities but they ought to be said."

"African stories are like onions," he says. "You have got to take time to peel those layers and of course, like onions ... it's going to burn your eyes. You will get a story that is not just about objectivity...it is the whole picture."

While Samura is keen to recognize that there have been many positive developments on the continent, he also highlights the importance of Africans reporting their own stories and creating their own narrative, no matter how difficult.

He believes this will lend more authenticity to the chronicling of life in modern Africa than foreign journalists coming in with their own ready-made preconceptions.

"Only Africans can tell their stories from the bottom up, from the African perspective, like a prism so that people will be able to see."

See also: Film pioneer helps Rwanda build new identity

If a new generation of African journalists can be inspired to take ownership of their own story with honesty and conviction, Samura believes the risks he has taken to make his films will have paid off.

"One thing that would make me believe I have achieved something for real in this particular discipline, is to see African journalists worship ... on the altar of truth," he says.

"African journalists should realize that they owe no obligations to tribe, to party, or to wealthy businessmen or to political leaders. All their responsibility is the truth."

"We have to find that pride in ourselves. I would rather die a poor man than trade what I have right now... my integrity."

Eoghan Macguire contributed to this report

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT