Driving The Roads Of Liberia In The 1970s

Eastman Kodak, who filed for bankruptcy in January, introduced Super 8 in 1965. Ten years later, Ford’s sole Liberian dealer used the film to document a country in its last years before its descent into one of history’s creepiest civil wars. These are his movies of driving across Liberia.


Liberia, a polyethnic wedge in West Africa, was originally a 19th-century project to return freed slaves to Africa. Instead of an African democracy liberated from European colonialist rule, Liberia became a weird mirror image of the Antebellum South, with the returned slaves—called Americo-Liberians—ruling over Liberia’s indigenous tribes. Their rule lasted until 1980, when 29-year-old master sergant Samuel Doe from the Krahn tribe became President in a rather novel way: he stormed the presidential palace with his supporters and disemboweled President William Tolbert, the last of the Americo-Liberians, in his bed. Nine years later, Doe suffered a similar fate, then Liberia was overrun by coked-up teenagers in wigs with AK-47’s, led by people like General Butt Naked and General Peanut Butter, and the country descended into a civil war whose weirdness and violence would have made Hieronymus Bosch blush.

The American presence in Liberia wasn’t restricted to its founding and a capital named after James Monroe. Firestone, through its Liberian subsidiary Firestone Natural Rubber Company, has been operating the world’s largest rubber plantation in Liberia since 1926. They’ve had other interests as well, like the Bomi Hills iron ore mine, the destination of the road trip in the video, filmed by a Firestone employee who ran “the sole dealership for Ford US and UK cars, pickups, trucks, tractors” in Liberia.

Creating a clip like this back in 1975 was a bit more complicated than in our age of two video cameras per pocketable device, especially when you were in West Africa. Here’s how the author describes the process:

Film was v expensive and unobtainable in Liberia, so your first shot was your only shot. Film came in 50ft reels—about 2 minutes—and cost the equivalent in todays money of around £50. Didn’t see what I’d shot until a year later. Bought a years supply of film when on leave, and kept it in the fridge. Mailed to the UK for processing, collected on the next annual leave, then spent the following year editing it. Slow!


He’s also got a clip which shows cars driving around Monrovia in a torrential downpour and another which illustrates local air travel. They all show a time and place which isn’t actually that far in the past, but which seems positively ancient when compared to modern films about Liberia, like Vice magazine’s from 2010—or the 2011 documentary The Redemption of General Butt Naked.

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