Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Freetown: A Review


Real-life stories, particularly ones of recent events, can be tricky.  You have to stick close to facts while allowed a certain dramatic license.  Freetown, the newest feature film in the annals of serious Mormon cinema, does a respectable job of showing the horrors of the Liberian civil war through civilian eyes.  LDS members will find a lot to admire in its tale of missionaries who continue to share the faith despite the brutality going on around them.  Non-Mormons (like myself) at least can admire the sincerity within Freetown.  The film does drag a bit as the missionaries go on their flight to safety, but one at least admires, even respects, the strides Mormon cinema is making (which puts many Christian films to shame). 

Liberia, 1989.  The country founded by former American slaves has descended into chaos and a brutal civil war.  The rebels, who believe that the Krahn community (I am loath to use the term 'tribe') has been unfairly favored, is now on a mass killing spree, killing any Krahn they can find.  They suspect a lonely driver, Abubakar (Henry Adofo) to be Krahn, but he is not.  He is, however, a Mormon, one of a small LDS community that is growing among the Liberian people. 

As tight, sincere, and devoted as the Elders are, they are not blind to the dangers around them.  One of them, Elder Gaye (Philip Adekunde Michael) is in great danger.  He is the only Krahn among the other Liberian Elders, which puts not just him but all the Elders at risk.  Despite Abubakar's objections, the other Elders will not leave Gaye to run the risk of getting killed.  They decide to flee to nearby Sierra Leone, taking what they can for the journey from Monrovia to Freetown.

From there, Freetown becomes an adventure story, with the Elders and a very cynical Abubakar taking dangerous terrain and risks for their fellow Elder.  At each point when something comes close to bringing them death, some great circumstance comes to their rescue.  As they travel through the country, the Elders never lose faith (and even have moments of levity within the insanity), as one of the rebels continues his search for the Krahn that got away, with a little help from another rebel who happens to be a Mormon (at least that's what I understood, a strange turn of events even in a real-life story).  Will they make it, even after one final obstacle comes close to destroying all they've worked for?

In many ways, Freetown is quite a good film.  Certainly a tale where there is a 'race against time' and one based on a true story lends itself to a potentially great film.

Director Garrett Batty does have some wonderful moments within it.  Of particular note is when Elder Gaye, who had scratched off his name to avoid being recognized as Krahn, is lined up with his missionary partner and a group of civilians interrogated on the spot, all being asked if they are Krahn.  Some deny it, some admit it.  An old woman admits she is Krahn, adding that there is no shame to it.  She is promptly shot.

However, given that this is a Mormon feature film, we were not going to get the graphic violence, and I would argue that Batty dropped the ball a bit when he opted to give us some but not all of the horror.  I don't say that it was bad, merely a bit clumsy, as if part of him wanted to show the true nightmare of the civil war, part of him knew it would not pass muster with his target audience.

Batty also seems to have a bit of a fixation with overhead shots, perhaps showing off his budget.  We got perhaps one too many images of us looking down on the proceedings, which soon became monotonous.

If Freetown has a flaw, it is that despite the scenario lending itself naturally to action, I found it a bit slow.  I sadly confess that at times I was nodding off and trying to stay awake through the screener.  

Another aspect that I found a mixed bag was when Batty's script (which he co-wrote with Melissa Leilani Larson) did have the Elders touch on the LDS' tortured history with Africans.  One commented about the history of the church and how the LDS did not have black priests until late in the 20th Century.  He figures that the divisions within the LDS Church are like those between Krahn and non-Krahn, and that now with the other Elders choosing to save and protect their fellow Krahn missionary, they somehow will show how human divisions can be overcome.

However, no amount of action, adventure, or sincerity will make the tortured history between blacks and the LDS Church any easier to reconcile.  While I admire Freetown actually discussing the Mormon history with Africans (and African-Americans), I cannot help wondering whether a deeper exploration needs to occur.

After all, Freetown, for whatever its virtues, is geared towards a particular market (and it isn't the general one).  It is suppose to reinforce Mormon outlooks, and despite itself the idea that Freetown may be perceived as pro-Mormon virtual propaganda cannot be entirely dismissed.  This isn't like a Kirby Heyborne film where the viewer gets the jokes (and which I didn't) Films like The R.M. and The Best Four Years, both of which I did like, had to be explained to while I watched. 

In a similar vein, I wonder whether I, as a Gentile who found much to admire in his trip to Salt Lake City but was wary about the Mormon theology, similarly 'missed something' about Freetown.  I also wonder whether this movie is more Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration than The Hiding Place.  In short, will a non-LDS audience find Freetown a gripping story or subtle propaganda?  I think on a personal level that it's a little bit of both (though the actual flight from danger, with some good moments, was a bit slow).   

It certainly lends itself to such charges when one of the Elders tells Abubakar what could be Freetown's theme, "Revelation doesn't come when we are living in the shadows".  This is used as rationale for continuing to preach despite the danger (and for the Elders not taking the option to change clothes that would make them less conspicuous.  Even some Jews attempting to flee Nazis had the sense to rip the Star of David off their clothes.  Is there something in Mormonism that stopped the Elders from doing as much?  Again, one wonders what as a non-LDS I missed).

We have that problem of having someone like Abubakar as one of our major characters, but why he is not as devout in his faith that God will get them through versus the Elders is something we are not given any clues or answers to.  We don't see the Elders doubt or even worry much.  I think Batty missed a bit of an opportunity to make his characters more complex and complicated. 

That isn't to say there is all bad.  One great aspect of Freetown was Robert Allen Elliott's score, which was tense but minimal.  I found the music to be a highlight of the film and excellently rendered.  I also found the interaction among the youthful Elders and the more weary Abubakar to be realistic.  One particularly amusing moment is when they escape past a checkpoint.  Abubakar wonders how it was done.  The Elders then bring out the machine gun clips, telling him they'll give them to someone in need.

It's just like the young to find humor in the darkest of places.

Freetown is sincere.  I give it that.  It has a much more professional look than something created by either the Christiano or Kendrick Brothers (whom I have a love-hate relationship with).  However, for good or ill, one moment in Freetown captures what the film is all about and how it goes about it.  When they are being held at a checkpoint by the rebels, the Elders begin sharing their Good News about the Restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith.  The rebels appear so bored with it that they wave them by rather than continue listening to them. 

It's almost like an accidental spoof of Star Wars. One expected them to say, "This isn't the Elder you're looking for".  An OK film, but one that with its pedigree, still makes me a little wary.

That, and I simply prefer Kirby Heyborne goofiness over somewhat gripping drama...


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