When I watched the documentary film of Sierra Leone’s only female surfer, captured by Daniel Ali & Louis Leeson, I had so many question. I needed to know how they found her, how they were able to tell her story so beautifully and, at a technical level, how the film mechanics worked – how they were able to follow her as she surfed. I was determined to interview them and learn their story and to find out more about KK, an incredible woman and the only female surfer in Sierra Leone.
Hello Daniel, hello Louis, thank you for agreeing to interview with me. I want to start out discussing the overall feeling of the documentary. The film was not only an educational experience it was also very soothing to watch. Was that intentional?
DA: Whilst researching the film and delving into the history of the country and imagining what it might be like to live in Bureh Beach, surfing the waves living the coastal life, I couldn’t help but think that surfing must be the best form of escapism for the locals. I kind of got obsessed with the idea of being alone on waves; a chance to forget about the daily worries, to be at peace whilst at the same time perfecting their craft as surfers. I think because of the visual and stylistic approach of portraying KK always on her own and in her own head space the film naturally became soothing. By visually bringing in the natural elements of the land and the sea, moments of KK reflecting on her life and surroundings were a tool we used in order to invite the viewer into KK’s headspace, attempting to create empathy with KK so one could begin to feel what she feels and not just be an observer.
LL: The two most important elements of the film are the character, KK, and the location, Bureh Beach. We wanted to give the audience a real sense of character and of place: the sand, the sea, the trees, the mountains, the sky. Bureh beach is an incredibly beautiful place, it’s idyllic, so we intentionally drew that out and focused on that. If the viewer finds those things soothing then that is probably an appropriate response to that beauty, so I’ll take that.
The beauty of the film is in the build up. The water sequences at the beginning of the film are about how mutable water can be and to watch KK surf the water at the end was satisfying. How did you develop the visual concept for the film? How important was the beach to KK’s story as a surfer?
DA: The beach and water are incredibly important to KK and the other members of the community, not just because of the surfing but because they relied on it for their food supply, because the beach attracted tourists to whom KK could sell her handmade wares to and living moments away from the sea meant the sound and the physical effects of living near the ocean impacted on their everyday lives. The sound of the waves were constantly there in the background like someone breathing, whether the tide was in or out even effected routes the locals would take to get from one place to another. As I said above, the build up and the lead in to the film is all about setting the scene, the mood and trying our best to put the viewer in KK’s frame of mind. The sea is something of beauty but also something that can be incredibly dangerous and rough at times, when you’re submerged under water it’s like being in another world. The volatility inherent in surfing; finding the perfect balance, relying on the water but also fighting the surge of the water in order to glide along with the waves and not crashing into the swell was to me symbolic of everyday life for the people of Sierra Leone trying to live their lives through the horrors of civil war and ebola simply trying to achieve what we all wish for; security and hope for a positive and fulfilling life. Trying to balance and emphasize all of these elements in a short film was crucial to telling the story without getting KK to literally explain everything word for word.
LL: You can’t surf without water, and you can’t make a film about surfing without getting wet. We knew we wanted to shoot in the water because it looked beautiful but also because we wanted to be close to the action. Filming KK catching a wave from the beach using a long lens wouldn’t have given the viewer the feeling of immersion that being right next to her with a wide angle did. This presented a technical challenge; keeping the camera dry obviously, but also focusing in those conditions is tricky, but far and away the biggest task was simply keeping pace with KK. She’s a strong surfer, so trying to move through the water with a bulky camera and be in the same place she is when she catches the wave, that’s tough. We finally got the shot we needed on the last day of filming, it was hugely satisfying and great payoff for all the hard work, ours and hers. Bureh Beach is a community, it is a village with its own elected headman and its own local politics. The population is small, maybe a few hundred people who all know one another. The surf school on the beach was setup by a westerner and given to the community as a way to increase tourism to the area and generate an income for local people, so the beach is hugely important to everyone: the economy is based on it and a lot of people wouldn’t have any work without it, including KK, who sells clothes she and her mother make to visitors to Bureh.
I’ve read KK, being a female surfer, is an anomaly in Sierra Leone but that would be true for most cultures, girls are not as heavily represented in the sport. Would you do another film about a female surfer or was KK’s story simply so compelling and unique you felt it was the right story to tell?
DA: You’re completely right that females in general and particularly in sports are hugely under-represented. I’d certainly like to portray other incredible women doing incredible things but another surfing story may not match up to KK’s story. For me it wasn’t so much about KK being a surfer, it was more about her battling with life experiences and the way she used surfing as a form of escapism. Yes she was/is the only female surfer in the country and yes she is really making grounds in the sport but personally I felt that the fact she surfed was just a great added extra. KK, like many other women in the country, has a tough life; women support and look after their families, they work various jobs, they also pursue an education so not many women are able to make the time for themselves let alone break into a male dominated sport and be doing as well as she is. KK certainly is unique, not just because of what she has experienced and what she does, but because of her approach and outlook on the world.
LL: I first visited Sierra Leone during the height of the Ebola epidemic in 2014. I was working as a photojournalist and it was a tense and scary time for everyone in the country. I very much wanted to come back to Sierra Leone and tell a different story to the one I had documented before. I wanted to show the optimism and beauty of the country and the people, not the suffering and the privation. Surfing is a visually aesthetic sport, flowing lines, blue water, smooth motions, and Bureh is very picturesque. Add to this the narrative of KK’s ambition of becoming the first female pro surfer in the country you have a strong metaphor for the optimism of Sierra Leone, a place that has emerged from civil war and viral pandemic yet still has huge aspirations of becoming prosperous and democratic state. If I were to make another film about a surfer there would need to be a lot of other themes in the mix to make it worth it, and I’m pretty happy with this one.
I totally see that KK is resilient, determined and willful, she clearly has a passion for surfing – what are a few idiosyncrasies (like her giving the sign of the cross before going out into the water) you can share about her personality?
DA: KK has a quiet confidence which is expressed through the way she surfs, the music she listens to, the various henna tattoos she has on her body, the bracelets and jeweler she chooses to wear. She seems to keep herself to herself but at the same time has a great sense of humor and definitely knows what she wants. KK spoke with her actions and not with her words, she seemed to always be knitting or sewing something so she could sell it on the beach or up at the crossroads. When we met with her teachers they were impressed with her approach to school, which after seeing her surfing was completely unsurprising; she’s determined and focused and certainly has something special about her.
LL: She is growing up without her father, in a patriarchal society at large, and in the male dominated microcosm of surfing specifically, so she has had to become quite tough and self reliant, which you can see from her self confidence in the film. All the other surfers on the beach are teenage boys, who are quite cool and aloof, so she has a tomboy streak, but she still has a very strong sense of herself, she knows who she is where she wants to go.
What do you want people to walk away with after they view your film?
DA: I felt it was important for people not to pity KK but to be in awe of her inner strength and her ability on the waves. Building empathy and understanding of one another through my work is the most important thing to me. If it inspires people and shows everyone that incredible things can be achieved in spite of the cards you’ve been dealt, then I’d be incredibly happy.
LL: I wanted the viewer to come away with a different impression of Sierra Leone than they might have had, that it was a beautiful place where good things could happen.
What new projects are you working on now? Can you provide a sneak peek?
DA: It feels like I’m forever researching projects and trying to make contacts with potential subjects but I have a few things lined up which will hopefully come to fruition this year, they centre around a mixed martial arts fighter, an open water swimmer and someone who has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. They all will end up being quite different films but at the heart of them I aim to simply create films portraying incredible personal stories.
LL: There’s a lot of spinning plates at the moment, but I might be going back to Sierra Leone to cover a couple of stories, one of them is about why so many people leave the country for Europe. A lot of people crossing from Libya to Italy are from West African countries, particularly The Gambia and Sierra Leone, so I am want to explore the issues around that.