Taking a different view of Sierra Leone's war

Special to The Times

Filled with angry indictments and images of horrific violence, Philippe Diaz's "The Empire in Africa" is a nerve-jangling account of the civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. It is also, from the title onward, a blunt and sometimes shakily argued attack on Western powers, the United Nations and Sierra Leone's current government, here characterized as little more than a puppet regime installed through fraudulent elections.

In a conflict that took more than 50,000 lives, there is plenty of blame to go around, and Diaz does not entirely spare the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, the anti-government rebels generally associated with the gruesome practice of amputating the limbs of civilians (purportedly in response to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's campaign slogan, "The Future Is in Your Hands").

But Diaz is so determined to present the RUF as an African liberation movement struggling against the remnants of colonial oppression that he accepts their version of events even when it strains credulity, and dismisses as "propaganda" all claims to the contrary.

If "Empire" fails to convincingly cast the RUF as populist liberators, it is far more successful in impugning the credibility of the international community. Diaz makes a compelling case that European and American powers, as well as Sierra Leone's African neighbors, are at least as interested in the country's rich natural resources as its democratic prospects, and offers evidence to suggest that they deliberately starved the country's populace to undermine a 1997 coup.

But while it condemns Nigeria for sending troops and South Africa for supplying mercenaries, the movie curiously omits Liberia, whose ousted president Charles Taylor was a major supporter of the RUF.

Diaz also accuses the media of sensationalizing the amputation epidemic while ignoring the conflict's deeper roots, a point swiftly made with shots of Kabbah, Kofi Annan and Madeleine Albright all cradling the same 5-year-old amputee for the benefit of the cameras.

Diaz would have a stronger case if he didn't linger on images of men being shot and dismembered in the street, and a young boy being stripped naked and beaten by uniformed troops. Presented with little in the way of context or explanation, the grisly images are disturbing without being enlightening. Something horrible is happening, but it's not always clear what.

"The Empire in Africa's" ramshackle portrait of Sierra Leone is worlds away from the big-budget carnage of "Blood Diamond," with whose release the film has been timed to coincide. ("Empire," which has been making the rounds of film festivals since January, makes no direct reference to the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, but Diaz angrily denounces the film, and particularly its portrayal of the RUF, on his distributor's website.)

That "Empire" lacks clear-cut heroes and villains is not necessarily a fault, but the movie's muddle too often comes across as an attempt to avoid assigning responsibility where it belongs.

Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. In French, English, local dialects, with English subtitles. Exclusively at Laemmle's Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A. (213) 617-0268.

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