Filmmaker Focus: Leo McCrea
Director Leo McCrea’s documentary Kwepunha Liberia highlights the burgeoning surf scene emerging in Liberia a decade after the end of a bloody and brutal civil war, the memories of which still shadow the nation. Here he shines a light on his project produced with writer and British pro longboarder Sam Bleakley and shares his hopes of a brighter future for Liberia.
Sam Bleakley first visited Liberia in 2006, just as the country was emerging from two back-to-back civil wars. Monrovia had turned on the streetlights on for the first time in 15 years, a metaphor of illumination from an era of darkness. ‘You could literally smell death in the streets’ says Sam of that trip.
10 years after the civil war visitors and surfers are starting to arrive – a fresh start for tourism. In the village of Robertsport Sean Brody and Daniel Hopkins from San Diego have built two surf retreats but instead of putting all proceeds into their pockets, they are using some of this money to invest back into the local community.
“Liberia has had so much bad press. Look on the internet – its all child soldiers, amputees and horrific war crimes. But the war ended over ten years ago. The country is ready for change and surfing gives the locals here something positive to focus on.” Sean Brody
Surfing is still a virgin scene. There is a bounty of waves here – reeling points, reefs and beachbreaks but no surf shops and nowhere to buy wax. The local boys and girls rely on the surfboards that travelling surfers leave behind, but with up to five kids sharing a board there’s not much to go around. It was this that prompted Sean and Daniel to develop a scheme where the kids can borrow surfboards, but if they damage one or break the rules (they must return the boards each night) they will have to do a community chore. This means that the kids take responsibility for the boards, which is really important so they don’t feel like it’s a free handout. Sean explains that many countries like Liberia have had aid workers in residence for so long that people get used to handouts and actually start to expect them. But to really get a community back on its feet, it’s important that people can work and see the reward of their efforts.
Sean and Daniel have also worked out ways in which projects and tourism can benefit the local community, ranging from sanitation, to a women’s sewing collective that makes board and beach bags, giving valuable income to their families and helping fund their children’s education.
Robertsport is at the beginning of a new and exciting journey as a world-class surfing destination. Currently they have a good model for responsible tourism and sustainability. But this can only succeed if similar moral minded outfits like Sean and Daniel keep up the positive work. At the moment only small numbers of tourists are visiting, but if they start arriving en masse, what will happen? Will human nature take its course, will less scrupulous businesses try and capitalize on the amazing waves and the generosity of the people? I hope not because currently Liberia is a virgin surf destination with a dark past but a bright future. – Leo McCrea