“Meet the Makers” is a series of interviews to introduce the filmmakers of the 2016 Willson Oakville Film Festival. Answers are edited for clarity and space.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS: ALLAN TONG, co-director/writer/producer
Allan is a Toronto filmmaker who wrote and directed the shorts “Little Mao” and “I Want To Be a Desi”, which Bravo aired after the film enjoyed award-winning festival runs. His short drama, “Grange Avenue” (2008) also played festivals and was broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Previously, Allan apprenticed as a documentary director and producer at the National Film Board of Canada. You can meet co-director and writer, Allan Tong following the screening of “The Flying Stars” on Sunday, June 26, 12:30PM.
NGARDY CONTEH GEORGE, co-director/editor/producer
As a Sierra Leonean-Canadian, Ngardy Conteh George wants to tell stories of the African Diaspora. As a director she has achieved this with “Soldiers for the Streets”, a short documentary for the NFB, broadcast on CBC Television and Literature Alive, and a documentary series featuring Caribbean-Canadian authors broadcast on Bravo!
ABOUT THE FILM: “The Flying Stars” tells the story of war amputee soccer players in Sierra Leone who are struggling with the lingering trauma caused by the horrors of war they suffered a decade ago.
Q: What drew you to this story?
Allan: In 2008 I saw a photo slideshow in Toronto that included shots by New York photographer, Fiona Aboud. Her photos and videos showed one-legged soccer players flying across the field – and these guys were faster on one leg than I was on two. I was personally inspired and I had this eureka moment where I knew I’d found a film. I had to know more about the people and this place, Sierra Leone, so I asked Fiona to connect me with some of the players and she did.
Ngardy: I was editing another project when Allan said that he wanted to make a film about amputee soccer players – or football as they call it there. I said I’d been looking to tell stories from Sierra Leone. I’m originally from Sierra Leone.
Allan: At the time I had no idea Ngardy was from there! It was fate.
Q: As you got deeper into the project, how did your feelings about the story evolve from the initial inspiration?
Allan: I originally wanted to follow the soccer team to the world championship but as we learned more about the characters and as the possibility of the team reaching the championship became less likely, we started to focus more on personal stories; especially the charismatic team captain, Bornor. He was very open about sharing his personal life and feelings and we learned he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His experiences in the war – including having his leg amputated – had left him traumatised and angry. He was struggling to support his family as a person with a disability in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Q: Did something happen during filming that defined the final film? If so, what was it?
Ngardy: A lot of story decisions are made during editing, not during filming. While filming, we had a lot of story threads to follow. We filmed things that seemed minor at the time because we didn’t know, ‘will that be relevant?’ We filmed more players than the audience sees in the film. Later, when we looked at all the footage, we could see what stood out – what was the strongest material. The PTSD story became important. It was something lingering and haunting, so we followed that thread during editing. It’s important to understand that in Sierra Leone, mental illness isn’t treated the way it is here. There isn’t the support or access to medical care. Sometimes mental illness is treated spiritually by talking to a church pastor.
Q: You’ve talked about how hard it was to start this film but at what point did it become harder to keep going?
Allan: Finding more money was a constant struggle. We shot over 24 months and made trips back and forth to Sierra Leone. We had to pay for travel – flights and transportation while in the country – food, medical. It’s very expensive to fly to Sierra Leone and at the same time you’re taking all this time to look for funding and make the film while you still have to pay your own bills. We have to credit the Sundance Documentary Institute for their support throughout this project. When we had to go to Sierra Leone, they helped.
Ngardy: Trying to find time to shoot and edit the film often meant giving up income from paying work.
Allan: Other than money, we followed so many characters and some were more open than others. Bornor (the main character) was quite open about his personal life, his family, and emotions and he was a good speaker. Not everyone was as open – and some people, though they had amazing stories, couldn’t articulate them.
Ngardy: We had to stay in touch with people in between filming trips to stay connected with them; what was going on in their lives and to keep their interest and trust. It was important that they knew we weren’t just opportunists showing up with cameras. Sierra Leoneans have a perspective on foreign camera crews. During and after the war, the media showed up to cover stories, so there’s the impression that if you’re ‘western media’ you must have money and that you’re making lots of money with your film. If you just show up, film, and go away, you’re seen to be keeping the money for yourself. To maintain relationships of trust, we had to make it understood that we weren’t a rich media outlet – far from it. We were barely putting two pennies together.
Q: What are some of the universal themes in this film that are relatable for the average person?
Allan: Bornor is a provider. He has children who he’s trying to feed and he’s trying to keep a roof over their heads in one of the poorest countries in the world. Being an amputee is a stigma, so he has to find a way to show that he can do something deserving of respect. Being a football player gets him some respect. Football is as popular there as hockey is here.
Ngardy: There are themes of family and the need for family and belonging. These men are not always considered as being part of the community.
Allan: They’re outsiders and they find family in one another by playing ‘the beautiful game’.
Q: What impact is the film having?
Allan: It’s raising awareness about amputees in a country (Sierra Leone) that many people have never heard of. The film is being seen in the U.S., Canada, and it was on Al Jazeera in the Middle East. It’s going around the world.
Ngardy: The more people who see the film, the more Bornor and other amputees can benefit from changing attitudes. The amputees are seeking respect as valuable members of society. When their countrymen see this film on Al Jazeera, they see the amputees in a positive light. The film reaches out to show the players’ humanity. The players only want to be self-sufficient; not be begging in the streets. Sierra Leone has an extremely high unemployment rate. It’s hard enough for people who have two arms and legs to find work. Imagine what it’s like for an amputee.
Q: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
Ngardy: I want people to see these guys’ stories and hear their own words. It’s their stories – no narrator – told in a respectful way without pity.
Allan: Be inspired. Bornor carries the scars of war – it’s not abstract – it’s not about pity. This is a real effect of war. Be haunted by it.
Interview by Cathleen MacDonald
Cathleen MacDonald is a writer and filmmaker.