20 May 2014

Liberia: Japanese Filmmaker Tackles Liberia's Plantation Workers' Plight

"My driving force for this feature, or rather filmmaking for that matter is to tell a universal story. As much as Liberian aspect takes a big role in this movie, ultimately, this is a universal story about a man who is trying to go beyond his inherent limits of his life. Through watching this movie, I hope people will be able to put themselves in the shoe of the main character, Cisco and feel something deep inside." - Takeshi Fukunaga

Monrovia - With seventy percent of production complete, filmmaker Takeshi Fukunaga and crew are in the final push for support for the completion of the first international feature film to to be made in association with the Liberia Movie Union.

Filmed partly in Liberia, Out of My Hand tells the story of Cisco, a struggling Liberian rubber plantation worker who risks everything to discover a new life as a cab driver in New York.

Cisco works on a rubber plantation when his life is disrupted by a Workers Strike. Risking everything to embark on a new life, he accepts a chance invitation to New York, where he immerses himself in its small Liberian community.

But when Cisco meets two Liberians from vastly disparate worlds than his own: one, a former Liberian child solder and the other, a wealthy businessman, he's forced to confront his own sense of self and of belonging.

The film touches upon the controversy over the Firestone Rubber Plantation, which has been drawing attention over the years. Since 1926, Liberia's Firestone Plantation in Harbel has been the leading source of revenue in Liberia.

Under pressure of the US State Department, the Liberian Government, represented by its Secretary of State Edwin Barclay, negotiated the controversial 1926 Firestone Concession Agreement and two additional agreements, giving Firestone a one million acre concession for a 99-year period with exclusive rights to selected lands with limited exceptions and exemptions to all present and future taxes.

Firestone acquired virtually unlimited rights over an area equal to 4 percent of the country's territory and nearly 10% of what was considered the arable land in the country.

Moreover, Firestone borrowed Liberia US$5 million through a wholly-owned and especially for this purpose created a subsidiary, the Finance Corporation of Liberia. The $5 million Loan puts Liberia virtually under control of US administrators and supervisors.

An American Financial Advisor appointed by the US Government controlled the Republic's finance and had to approve the country's budget every year. But the most striking and important consequence of this Loan was that the Liberian Government was now forbidden to contract new loans without the written consent of the Finance Corporation of America, i.e. Firestone.

In 2005, the tire maker Bridgestone Firestone was mired in controversy regarding the working conditions of Liberian plantation workers and a federal lawsuit in California accused the firm of employing slave labor and child labor on its massive rubber plantation in Liberia.

A lawsuit organized by the Washington, DC-based International Labor Rights Fund, which also helped organize a lawsuit in the 1990s against Unocal Corp., alleging human rights violations during the construction of a pipeline in Southeast Asia. "Out of My Hand" however, deals not with the politics of the plantation, but with the personal relationships and challenges of those on it.

Takeshi says the film is the second narrative feature film shot in Liberia by foreign production and gives much thanks to the incredible support from the Liberia Movie Union and the local community. "We've finished the production in Liberia last spring, which is about 70% of the movie, and we are currently raising funds to finish shooting rest of the movie in New York."

Born and raised in Hokkaido, Japan, Takeshi studied film at Brooklyn College in New York City, where he continues to live. His first short film, "The Hole In the Sky," received an award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.

He's made a variety of works from ranging from music video to documentary. His short documentary, "The Sword Maker" was nominated as a selection for Best Documentary Series in 2012 Vimeo Award.

Last year, Takeshi partnered with Donari Braxton to co-found the production company, "TELEVISION". The company's created video content for producers ranging from HBO to Puma, Reebox and Marc Jacobs, and produces both American and multinational feature films.

Takeshi says he was driven to the subject matter's universal appeal. "As much as Liberian aspect takes a big role in this movie, ultimately, this is a universal story about a man who is trying to go beyond his inherent limits of his life.

Through watching this movie, I hope people will be able to put themselves in the shoe of the main character, Cisco and feel something deep inside. There are so many people who supported this project and we couldn't have come this far without them. I'm really grateful and eager to make them proud of being a part of this when they see the finished movie and that's another big driving force for me."

Filming in Liberia, according to Takeshi took a lot of adjustments amid many challenges. "We had to adjust ourselves to a very different environment and culture to be able to do our job: running a generator all the time no matter what time of the day it was, driving on the rough road to get to the location every day, being under harsh sunlight and getting hit with heavy rain, dealing with a different sense of time Liberian people have, and the list goes on. Thankfully, we got what we needed with incredible support from local crew and community."

The film is expected to give local actors and actresses in Liberia boost with its international appeal. All of the cast members in Liberia are native to, and live in, the country.

"This is, for the majority of them, the first film, if not the first feature film, that they have been involved in. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have found such an extraordinarily talented cast in Liberia," Takeshi says.

Working with the local movie Union, according to Takeshi was key to the production. "I was lucky to be connected with a Liberian crew living in the U.S. who connected me with the Liberia Movie Union.

Before I first went to Liberia by myself to do casting, they had been making announcements through local radio and TV shows about it, and the result was so successful that we saw hundreds of actors amongst whom many were incredibly talented.

It's unfortunate that the movie industry in Liberia is still so small that it's virtually impossible to make a living as an actor there. Hope this movie will bring more attention to them and help them move to the positive direction." The independent filmmaker says funding has been a challenge in completing the project.

"We launched a 30 days Kickstarter campaign in late April to raise funds to shoot the rest of the movie in NY. Even though we've received incredible support thus far, the amount we still need to raise in remaining couple days is still very challenging.

As a basic rule of Kickstarter, if we don't reach the pledged amount by the end of the campaign, we don't get a penny. My team and I have been striving to achieve the goal and believe that we can make it happen."

For Takeshi, the film will not only be an eye opener for Liberia's budding movie-making industry but a showcase of their potential. "There are of course few opportunities for actors to practice their craft in the country of Liberia, due to its small, but resiliently passionate film community. Our hope is that this film will shine light on them, and hopefully contribute in whatever small way, to bringing still greater opportunities for them to do what they love."

For now, Takeshi's first priority is getting the movie completed. "If you want to see this movie completed, I hope you would consider giving us a support through this crowd funding platform and taking a journey with us."

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