Since 2007 the VICE travel guides have brought us some of the most unusual travel films around: From Beirut to Bulgaria, Chernobyl to Congo the guides have taken the viewer on journeys to surreal and often dangerous places.
The latest documentary is the The Vice Guide to Liberia, without doubt the most controversial instalment yet. We talk to Andy Capper, editor of VICE UK about what was involved and what comes next for the series.
Tell us about the VICE travel guides. How did you come up with the idea for them?
VICE used to have a regular section on travel. The travel guides started along the same lines as the other life guides. We put some of the older films on the Vice Guide to Travel DVD and then launched a website called VBS TV with filmmaker Spike Jonze as creative director. We wanted to go some different places. They aren’t meant to be like Time Out guides.
How long does it take research, prepare, film and produce your documentaries?
Not long. We filmed in Liberia in June and released it six months later but we had to spend a lot of time doing all the bureaucratic stuff and lobbying before we went.
Did you go with any preconceptions? Were they accurate?
We’d wondered about how the people could have done all these terrible things to each other during the civil wars. We’d heard that the situation had started changing for the better in Liberia since the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf but we wanted to go beyond the press releases and actually speak to people on the ground.
Given the security situation in Liberia what precautions did you take to protect yourselves?
We worked with local fixers. Everywhere we went we attracted attention particularly when people saw our cameras. We’d start filming and then all of a sudden there’d be forty or fifty kids all around us. We’d often get mobbed by people us all asking for money.
What do you say to the critics of the VICE travel guides who claim that the documentaries are overly sensationalized?
They aren’t. Its one guy with one camera. We report it as we see it. We are just trying to show people what’s happening, to report the news. Perhaps they don’t like what they see.
For part of the time your guide was Joshua Blahyi (aka General Buttnaked) a former cannibal warlord responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 civilians. Did you have reservations about working with him?
As much as any sane person I suppose. We had a strange relationship. We were trying to understand how this man could have done what he did but we were also interested in how he had changed. We were also interested to understand how they (the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission) had just let him walk free after the war. Once you look as his upbringing as a priest in the Krahn tribe it’s hard to judge him since he was involved in these practices from such an early age. As Shane Smith said on the film it felt very surreal after spending so much time with him, a bit like being on acid. Its strange to think that a few years ago this guy was eating babies and now he wants to be our friend. It’s impossible to make judgements about Joshua based on our own values.
I thought to myself if it all goes to hell again in Liberia would he come back as General Buttnaked or would he come back as Joshua Blayhi? One day we went to eat ribs with him. It brought him back bad memories.
How is Joshua Blayhi supported?
Joshua is supported by his friends and his supporters in the evangelical Christian community. They like to think of him as Saul on the Road to Damascus. He represents all the best Christian stories, how he has managed to deal with his past, live that down and be a good guy. As he says for him ‘it used to be the blood of humans and now it’s the blood of Jesus’. He is no Vicar of Dibley.
What other documentaries do you have in the pipeline?
We are focusing on the Rule Britannia series at the moment. Swansea Love Story is out now as is Blackpool: Vegas of the North. We’ve got three more planned in the next six months. We are also working on a partnership with CNN.