Cinema is often connected to dreams and triumphs, and yet failure can make for a far more arresting subject. This astonishing documentary both demythologises the creative process and captures a tortuous artistic collaboration full of human messiness and complexity.
With an evocative opening image of a man paddling a small boat towards the shore, Sing, Freetown is about returning, both physically and metaphorically. The image recalls the history of Sierra Leone as a territory where liberated Africans resettled after the slave trade was outlawed. Bafta- and Emmy-winning journalist Sorious Samura is also on his own odyssey. Weary of reporting on the poverty and civil unrest in Africa, Samura has come back to Sierra Leone, his homeland, to create a theatre piece that is positive about the nation’s pride and its rich history. Joining him is Charlie Haffner, Samura’s friend, mentor and founding figure of modern Sierra Leonean theatre. The pair encounter funding difficulties and resistance from the government. These are to be expected; what they do not predict is how the project would irretrievably puncture their relationship.
Making art on the postcolonial margins is complicated. Logistical issues aside, Samura and Haffner feel not just their own insecurities heavily on their shoulders but also centuries of collective angst, guilt and hurt. The film acutely captures this intellectual and emotional turmoil: a particularly searing moment is when Samura speaks to the camera, as if in confession, about how his journalism is perhaps complicit in serving up Africa’s traumas to the consumption of the white gaze. Haffner bluntly says that his former student only makes documentaries for white people, even as he himself suffers from the spectre of a personal tragedy.
All of this might sound like heavy stuff, but Sing, Freetown is a dynamic film with a deep understanding of the country’s rhythm, as well as the ebb and flow of the two men’s rapport. This is a hugely special, rewarding documentary whose ending manages to encompass both victory and loss.
• Sing, Freetown is released on 25 June in cinemas.