In Freetown director Garrett Batty (The Saratov Approach) attempts to bring the true account of a group of Liberian Mormon missionaries and their bold and often treacherous journey from Liberia’s capital of Monrovia to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1989 at the onset of the Liberian Civil War.
As far as true stories go, Freetown accomplishes the bare minimum. However, it’s often capable of being touching, as we follow a group of starry-eyed religious Elders as they travel through Liberia spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. Amidst a civil war, where rebels run amok with a deep seated hate towards the ruling Khran, the idealist Elders make their long cross-country journey. As it happens, one of the Elders – Gaye (Philip Adekunle Michael) – is a Khran and thus a target for the rebels.
The Elders are oft fearless and devoted as they continue to preach and adhere vehemently to their Christian devotions despite their violent and seemingly hopeless environment. Aided by Abubakar (Henry Adofo), the secular spirit of the film, and the one providing transportation for the fellow Elders with his cramped small vehicle, they band together and are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect Gaye knowing their fates could be the same if captured by the rebels.
At first glance Freetown might appear no more than a propaganda film designed to further the faith and doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints. Rather than dogmatically preaching the virtues of Mormonism, it perpetuates optimism in a world gone mad with hate and violence.
Their journey is often quite touching as you can feel the plight of the missionaries, but they go about with a childlike naivety they often seem less like enlightened followers of the Church than just a group of friends on a fun adventure. The reality of their situation – caught in the middle of a violent armed struggle – and constant danger isn’t believable much of the time, save for a scene or two.
Some lengthy speeches hinder the pacing and are quite boring and excessive, and at a certain point one feels an onset of car sickness due to all the filler and meandering scenes. Thankfully, these fleeting moments are salvaged by slightly tense scenes and low-points on the boys’ journey that will have you cheering for the group to succeed. Plus, having a likable lead and supporting characters is very helpful.
Some tense moments move the plot along and help grab your interest, but the curious way the horrors of the Liberian war and threat of the rebels lessens the tension, partly because of a stylistic choice by the director in the handling of the many executions – which are not shown but implied off-screen. The camera pans away just enough to miss the violence, which might be a design to help the less squeamish not feel visually assaulted in an otherwise squeaky clean film.
The problem with this technique is that it takes you out of the moment, and by doing so calls too much attention to itself. I’m not advocating showing gruesome horror for the sake of shock, but the way the horrors of the Liberian war – virtually unknown to many in the west – are sanitized here lessen the necessary tension and realistic drama from what might have been a more powerful and tense historical thriller.
Freetown is about hope, not just in religion, but also in humanity itself. Batty attempts to capture a country and conflict seldom seen on film during a brief historical crossroad of an African nation bogged by extreme violence and intolerance. Despite the madness there are still those small moments that go largely unseen and under-appreciated, much like this film, which itself will most likely go largely unseen because of its implied religious nature. It’s not without issues, primarily its sanitized nature and tendency to overextend its likability. But its intentions are good, and those willing to overlook its faults may actually learn a thing or two.