In our daily lives, we pass hundreds, if not thousands, of people every day – people we don't know, complete strangers. Under the guise of relative anonymity, we play formal roles in each other's lives. We recognize the postman, the woman who sells train tickets, we have seen many times, and every day there is an unknown sitting next to us on the bus. But what do we really know about these people? How much of their past that we do not know is what makes them who they are? And how many peculiar stories do we miss every single day, passing people who were never meant to be a part of our lives?
Andreas Hadijpateras' film A Forgotten Past, which was shown during the Thessaloniki Film Festival in March, raises all these questions after the main character – a very ordinary middle-class American – tells us his story. The family father works in a New York supermarket, but before that life he had another: He lived in Sierra Leone, and his father was the one who ruled the country.
The family's forgotten past
The film combines archival footage and interviews with family members and people who knew the now deceased Andrew Juxon-Smith – a politician and colonel lieutenant who served as head of state in Sierra Leone in the 1960s. What blends the film together is the fascinating story of his son Solomon Juxon-Smith, who shares his family's forgotten past with the audience. The story is extraordinary, not only because it is so deeply rooted in West African history, but also because it is a story of exile, of going from rich to poor, from living a life among the elite in their own homeland to starting afresh on another continent.
"If you don't know where you're going, you should know where you're coming from."
The rare archival recordings from Sierra Leone in the decade that followed the release of British rule in 1961 are magnetic to anyone interested in African history. The black and white images draw the viewer into a lost era. The Sierra Leone portrayed in these images is an independent African country that has just been liberated from British colonial rule – a 1960s community that is both local and western, with a dress code that could just as easily be passed in the UK.
Juxon-Smith's unpopular measures
In the 1960s, like so many other African countries recently liberated from colonial rule, Sierra Leone struggled to find its own way and almost succeeded in electing a democratic government. At the 1967 election, when the opposition won a clear victory, a military coup was carried out and the army took power. It was at this time that Andrew Juxon-Smith was called back from London and taken over as head of state. It remains unclear why he was picked out and brought home from London. In a black-and-white interview, he speaks with a strong British accent and expresses, among other things, his attitude towards the country's tribal culture. Like others with a military background, he had a sense of discipline, and he is remembered for not accepting bribes and other benefits. His efforts and thoroughness – but also his propensity to teach people what it means to work hard – made him few friends.
His junta dropped state plantations that were ineffective, increased taxes and import duties, kicked corrupt politicians and placed the responsibility of the economy in the hands of professional administrators. All this led to considerable unemployment. A coup that was welcomed by many ordinary people eventually removed him from power and sent him to prison with his officers. It seemed as if many thought corruption was preferable to Juxon-Smith's long-term and rigorous measures. After several years in prison, exile became the only choice for Juxon-Smith and his family.
The biggest contrast in the film lies between the lives of Sierra Leone's elite, who they left, and the more sober existence Solomon now lives. It is striking how much one's life can change.
"If you don't know where you're going, you should know where you're coming from," is a saying in the Cryo (Sierra Leone's Creole) language that Solomon is pondering at the very beginning of the film. The West African story he shares with us in front of the camera seems far from the reality he now lives in and who he has become. Solomon still represents one of the few fragments that still exist from the family's past – he was just a boy when they left Sierra Leone, his father dead a long time ago, while his mother died when they started filming. A Forgotten Past a lot of what's left: get survivors, stock photos, and this one son who can convey the story. The rest is history.