WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Journalist Clarice Gargard has a complicated relationship with her father, Martin Gargard: she’s his baby girl, but they don’t see each other a lot, as she lives in the Netherlands, and he in Liberia. When Clarice starts thinking about the role that Martin has played in the history of their homeland, she realizes that not everything is as clear cut as she’d want it to be. Did Martin, who served as the country’s head of communications, aid, and abet Charles Taylor, the country’s notorious warlord, and ex-president, currently incarcerated for his war crimes? To investigate, Clarice goes on a visit to Monrovia, backed by the film crew, and tries to get to the bottom of the issue. The narrative follows her quest for truth, as her personal reflections are juxtaposed to the memories of survivors of Liberia’s civil wars.
WHO MADE IT: An Aruban-Dutch director, who arrived in documentary filmmaking after a career on TV, Shamira Raphaëla is no stranger to wrought family histories. Her debut feature documentary “Deal with It” centered around her own father, as he struggled with addiction and crime, and her brother, who was set on following in his father’s footsteps. Since making “Daddy and the Warlord,” she has released “Our Motherland,” a documentary about the members of the Dutch neo-nazi party, and is currently working on her latest project, “The Downfall of a Superwoman.”
Born in the US, Clarice Gargard relocated to the Netherlands from Liberia with her older sister at the age of 4 and has lived there since. She is now a writer, journalist, and activist interested in the intersections of power, justice, and identity. After co-creating “Daddy and the Warlord” with Raphaëla, Clarice wrote a book about her family history and search for truth, “Dragon’s Daughter,” which is currently available in Dutch. A part of the English translation is available here, and even these few pages offer a remarkably enriching accompaniment to the film.
Her father, Martin Gargard, had served as the head of Liberia Telecommunications Corporation and was in charge of all incoming and outgoing information in the country.
The film features appearances by various Liberians directly or indirectly related to Martin’s work in communications, Charles Taylor’s cabinet, and the legal process against Martin, which ran in the early 90s. Journalists, Tecee Boley, and an unnamed man, offer their insights, while Liberia’s ex-president Amos Sawyer makes a surprise “appearance.” Survivors of the war are shown and interviewed about their tragic experiences but remain anonymous.
Two prolific Dutch masters of sight and sound, cinematographer Jefrim Rothuizen and composer Jeroen Goeijers, are responsible for the films evocative atmosphere.
WHY DO WE CARE: Immigrants or children of immigrants are often piled together, without much distinction paid to how they are linked to their estranged countries of origin. However, anyone who is a clean slate in their adopted homeland always has a tangled relationship with the old country, one that gets further complicated with the existence of parents or grandparents in positions of power. There are many stimulating narratives of children of freedom fighters: but just as beguiling are those of children of equality obstructionists. And yet, we don’t get enough narratives to explore the shameful histories: guilt, denial, inability to extract the full extent of truth from the parents, and often the mere inability to see things objectively all stand in the way between creators and their ability to explore the inextricable links making them not quite complicit, but present, in the narratives of oppression and pain. So when attempts at diving deep into family’s skeletons in the closet occur, they’re always exciting to see. Taking the journey in search of the truth—or, as it’s more likely to appear, the best semblance of truth that can be uncovered—is always a painful and very gutsy move that makes for a compelling narrative. “Daddy and the Warlord” is one such exploration that invites the viewer to walk the murky waters of Liberia’s rather recent bloody history alongside Clarice Gargard and try to estimate to what extent if any her father was complicit in Charles Taylor’s rule and war. The film will not help settle whatever questions the viewer may have about Liberian history, Taylor’s dictatorship, or the CIA’s involvement in the country. But it will open up a window to larger, looming question of political collaboration, which, to a larger or lesser extent, is something each of us can direct inwardly.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: Even though the film allows unparalleled access to Clarice’s investigation and allows the viewer to see the evolution of her response in the recurring mini-interviews with Raphaëla, the film’s goal is not the search for universal truth. Instead, it is a poetic journey of figuring out one’s humble place in the universe of things and placing one’s existence within its inextricable links to the suffering of others.
In addition to the absorbing investigation at its center, “Daddy and the Warlord” also offers rare visual and sonic delights. The film seems to exist in its own reality that is parallel to ours: where the ambient music and flickers of neon create a twilight fairytale, a buffer between truth and ignorance, a limbo which explodes in sound and color to keep one away from revelations. It’s always present, appearing out of nowhere as Clarice interviews her interlocutors, but especially potent in the dark, when emotions are highest: such as when Clarice and Martin find commonality in preparing and partaking of a meal or when Clarice, grilled by Raphaëla, grapples with her discoveries. But Goeijiers’s compositions and Rothuizen’s camerawork are at their most poetic when the war survivors are interviewed, flares caressing their scarred skin, haunting music enveloping in a protective shroud. These aesthetic measures allow approaching the subject of Liberian war, and Martin’s involvement in it with a distance that’s both sanity-preserving for Clarice, and respectful to the survivors’ accounts.
A meticulous inquiry into the link between a contemporary idealist and a historical injustice, “Daddy and the Warlord,” is a masterclass in subtlety that expertly deals with the ethical limitations of its deep-seated subject matter. A father’s cooperation, war traumas, identity crisis: the film is ripe with dark stuff, but through humanity and honesty, Shamira Raphaëla and Clarice Gargard were able to create a narrative that inspires hope and healing, of which admission is only the first step.
Daddy and the Warlord, 2019
Director: Shamira Raphaëla
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