The Vice TV Guide to Liberia

At minimum, VICE's work demonstrates there are stories to tell about Africa that can reach an audience beyond public television.

Monrovia, Liberia. Photo by Morgana Wingard, for UNDP, via Flickr Creative Commons.

The hipsters at VICE produce video reporting which sways between brilliant and annoying. They’ve also become more important now that CNN has signed a deal to put VICE’s content on all its (CNN’s) platforms.  About being brilliant or annoying or both at the same time, check out VICE’s most recent “report” on Liberia which you can watch in 8 parts on its website. Here’s the PR: “Heroin dens, teenage prostitution, cross-dressing cannibals… Welcome to the VICE Guide to Liberia. Things are about to get really hairy.”  This is how VICE editorializes the aftermath of the civil war: From there things go from bad to total shit.”

I have tried not to say anything about the Liberia series since I first watched some of it online last month. Largely, because while I find some parts voyeuristic and sensationalist and not adding much to understand a society after a war, the series also has its virtues. Reviews of the series in the mainstream press have been sparse, despite VICE’s foray into the mainstream with CNN.  The best commentary is by Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher and consultant on technology and development, who was based in Ghana for a long while. His blog, My Heart’s in Accra, has one of the best takes on the series.

Zuckerman is right that “VICE’s story (of Liberia) is designed to shock at least as much as it is to enlighten.” And as he adds, a lot of what “The VICE Guide to Liberia” shows about social conditions, especially the cynicism of aid agencies and the government to people’s economic and social conditions there, may be news to hipster journalists, but isn’t especially shocking “to anyone who’s spent time in West Africa or any very poor parts of the world.” Zuckerman writes that “(m)uch of what seems to scare Smith and his crew – situations they inevitably describe as having ‘a heavy vibe’ – are cases where they (a bunch of white guys with expensive camera equipment) are surrounded by poor Africans who’d like some money.” That said, I appreciate this part by Zuckerman gets to the mixed feelings a lot of have about VICE:

“… So, is this a straightforward case of overprivileged westerners making fun of the poor, a contemptible piece of exoticism? I think the filmmakers see themselves doing something different: showcasing the strange culture collisions that occur in a world as interconnected as ours …  Something about the VBS documentaries – the high quality of production, the unfamiliarity of the subject matter, the narrative of “adventure” rather than history – is generating a lot of buzz. As much as I want to object to the VBS video, which sensationalizes, uses historical footage with little context, and is a classic example of parachute psuedo-journalism, I have to admit that it’s a compelling piece of storytelling and that it caught my attention. Rather than critiquing it, I’m interested in picking it apart and starting to understand what makes it work. What could documentary filmmakers learn from VBS to generate a wider audience for their work? Is it possible to broaden your audience without playing to their desire to see something shocking and outrageous? Is it acceptable to use shock and outrage to get people to pay attention to parts of the world they know and care little about?

I’m fascinated by VBS because they appear to be getting people to pay attention to a part of the world that receives very little media attention. At minimum, Vice’s documentary demonstrates that there are stories to tell about Africa’s history that can reach an audience beyond the NPR/PBS community. The open question for me is whether the story they tell is a constructive one, one that can help (the places they cover) move forwards, or merely a shocking, exploitative one.  … I’m not sure what I think – what do you think? …”

Zuckerman also lists a number of alternatives to the VICE genre of documentary film making: “Liberia: America’s Stepchild“, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell“, “Iron Ladies of Liberia“, “Liberia: An Uncivil War” and “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here“.  We can vouch for those. In any case, people who watch “The VICE Guide to Liberia” may do well to check out these documentaries (one upside of VICE is that it makes it content freely available online, while many of these documentaries are not even on the most popular streaming services). Finally, there is the writing of Ishmael Beah, himself a former child combatant in the civil war, and the 2007 series written by black British novelist, Zadie Smith (no relation to VICE CEO and on-air host of the “VICE Guide to Liberia” series, Shane Smith).  “Letter from Liberia” about a recent trip Zadie Smith took to Liberia is worth the read.

Finally, please don’t let the VICE guys near Congo.

* This post was later amended.

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