Picture imperfect: Africa's greatest photojournalist

A new film portrays Mohamed Amin as selfish and ruthless - and it's directed by his son, writes Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Africa's greatest photojournalist, Mohamed 'Mo' Amin, the man who filmed the Ethiopian pictures that made Michael Buerk's name and moved Bob Geldof to thinking up Live Aid, has been portrayed in a film as a selfish philanderer who was hated by his professional colleagues.

What's more, the film has been made by his own son, Salim. "We are not pulling any punches," he says. "It's a warts and all film, and that's what makes it interesting - that it's not just a sycophantic hagiography." As the embodiment of a committed journalist, Mo, whose story is so extraordinary it is being considered as the subject of a Hollywood feature film, would surely not have had it any other way.

Born in Kenya and brought up with eight siblings in the slums of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, he was the fixer par excellence of African journalism, an unrivalled scoop-getter who was present at wars, famines and revolutions, recording the fall of Haile Mariam Mengistu in Ethiopia and of Idi Amin in Uganda.

As a young journalist, he was hauled off to jail and tortured. And when, years later, his arm was blown off in an explosion, he flew to America to get a bionic one so that he could carry on filming. He died (alongside his old friend, the British freelance writer Brian Tetley) on board an Ethiopian Airlines jet, desperately negotiating with hijackers who crashed the plane into an island in the Indian Ocean in 1996. He was 53.

Whether he would have trusted his son to tell his life story is another matter. "He was disappointed with me and didn't think I'd amount to anything and that I was a bit of a waste of time," says Salim, who worked with his father at his Nairobi-based agency. "He didn't teach me much in the later years, although we worked in the same office. I was basically just a glorified secretary to him."

Salim has pulled it off, though. His 95-minute film, Mo & Me, has won a string of awards in America, including Best International Documentary at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. Al Jazeera, which funded the project, will show an extended version as a seven-part series to help launch its new English language channel later this year.

Despite Mo's long relationship with the BBC, the life-story of the man responsible for some of the most memorable news footage screened by the corporation in modern times did not attract much interest in White City. "It surprised me that organisations like the BBC, CNN and others that he worked with extensively didn't have any interest in the story," says Salim. "I think the Beeb felt it was the Michael Buerk Story and didn't have anything to do with my dad per se. CNN put budget constraints on it and we wanted to make it a high-end, not a cheap production. I, perhaps naively, assumed the BBC would be interested because some of the biggest stories they had out of Africa in the Eighties were his; the Ethiopian famine; the fall of Mengistu and of Amin. My father set them up, found people, did the logistics, got access to these places and filmed them. Cameramen very rarely get the credit for anything, even now. They take the majority of the risks in getting the pictures but it's always the personality in front of the cameras that people relate to the story."

The Ethiopian story in 1984 was Mo's finest, saving perhaps three million lives. "For the first time in his life, he was touched by a story and made it almost a personal crusade to keep it on the front pages," says his son.

For Salim, Me & Mo has been a profound learning experience. "Because of the way he died, I didn't get to discuss a lot of the things that were between us," he says. "For me, it's a journey of discovery as to who this man was and why he did the things he did. With this film, I understand him a lot better and understand why he was the way he was with me.

"He was well-respected but he was also hated in the professional sense, because he was completely ruthless in the field. He would do anything to be the only one with the story. That was a huge part of his success. He knew the continent inside out but he also had no qualms about screwing somebody to get the story."

The film includes a story, recounted to Salim by BBC correspondent Colin Blane, which demonstrates the lengths Mo was prepared to go to protect an exclusive. Covering the fall of Mengistu in 1991, Mo found himself cut off after rebel forces blockaded the airport in Addis Ababa. Only his famed negotiating skills enabled him to persuade them to remove the blockade and allow the arrival of a flight carrying Blane and Buerk. But Mo's primary motive was to use the plane to get his film out of Ethiopia, and when a CNN crew attempted to give their footage to the pilot he intervened. "He threw it away and said, 'Forget it, this is my plane and only my film goes out'," Salim says. "Ironically, the same CNN guys were giving him blood when his arm was blown off two days later."

Mo would wake at 2.30am and start working, heading to the office at 6.30am and not coming home until 7.30pm. He would eat dinner and by 9pm he was in bed. "That was his life every single day," says his son. "There wasn't much time for conversation."

Money, which he spent largely on new camera equipment, was not his motivation. "His dress sense was terrible and he had this beaten-up Peugeot 504 that he drove even when he lost his left arm," says Salim. "It meant letting go of the steering wheel to change gear. He said if you don't like it, walk."

Though Mo came from humble beginnings, he was able to network at the highest level. "In Africa, you can be the best correspondent in the world but if you can't get in and out of a place it's pointless," says Salim. "Dad was a master of that. He had the best contacts book any journalist had on the continent."

Salim, 36, hopes his film will create a ripple-effect through African journalism. His plan is to set up Africa's first independent 24-hour news service. "We want to try to counter this impression that it's just a continent of disease and HIV, corruption, genocide and famine," he says. "Africans are a bit tired now of getting their own news from the West."

Salim knows he still has much work to do but he ends his film with a simple message to his late father: "I hope you're happy now."

'Mo & Me' London premiere, Wednesday, Bafta, 195 Piccadilly, London

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