MONROVIA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Born into civil war, raised amid violence, hunger and death, and witness to the world’s worst Ebola outbreak, Pandora Hodge is now playing her part in Liberia’s recovery - through film.
Disheartened by a lack of culture and jobs in the war-scarred West African nation, the 27-year-old launched Kriterion Monrovia - a student-run organization which hosts cultural events, screens films and offers young people part-time work.
“Since the end of the war, Liberia’s focus has been mainly on healthcare and education... cinema is a way of bringing back culture and inspiring communities across the country,” she said.
Liberia had been slowly rebuilding from a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 when the Ebola epidemic erupted almost two years ago, ravaging the country and destroying livelihoods.
While Liberia - the country hardest-hit by the virus with some 4,800 deaths - was declared Ebola-free for a third time last month, high youth unemployment in a country where six in 10 people are under the age of 24 is holding back its recovery.
“Kriterion is a platform for culture... but it also offers hope, opportunities and work experience to young people, which may help them find jobs in the future,” said Hodge.
Kriterion, founded by students in Amsterdam after World War Two and adopted in post-conflict cities such as Sarajevo, was set up in 2011 in Liberia, a country with few filmmakers where people tend to watch movies in ramshackle bars and restaurants.
The group has traveled to communities across Liberia armed with a projector and a variety of films - ranging from documentaries to Charlie Chaplin classics - giving many people their first taste of cinema and watching movies on a big screen.
Films are chosen, based on discussions with the villagers, to educate, trigger debates and make people laugh, Hodge said.
“I have never seen something make an entire community laugh so much as Charlie Chaplin. Every generation can relate to the daily trouble he gets into, it is timeless,” she said, recalling hundreds of people huddled tightly together on wooden benches.
Bustling around her recently-opened restaurant “Pandora’s Basket” - greeting customers and taking orders - Hodge brims with pride as she talks about Kriterion’s response to Ebola.
Their screenings were brought to a halt in 2014 by a ban on gatherings during the epidemic, but Hodge and her team of 72 student volunteers were undeterred. They went to the Ministry of Health and asked to be trained to inform people about the virus.
“We went door-to-door in communities where we had held screenings, where people knew us,” Hodge said. “People didn’t trust the government, but they felt comfortable talking to us.”
Frustrated that the Ebola response focused mainly on Monrovia, Kriterion visited every virus hotspot and more than 400 communities across Liberia - shooting footage along the way to produce a documentary called “Understanding kills Ebola”.
“We wanted to highlight the impact of Ebola outside of the capital and give voices to those going unheard,” Hodge said.
Kriterion has also encouraged people to direct, shoot and edit their own films, many focusing on common issues in Liberian society - ranging from the accountability of government to post-war recovery.
Hodge was only eight years old when her family was forced to flee their home in Montserrado during Liberia’s 14-year civil war - walking through swamplands to their second house in West Point slum to avoid the violence unfolding in the capital.
“The hardest part of the war was people starving - everyone was malnourished and that was truly terrible to see,” she said.
But standing in the kitchen of her restaurant, frying fish while stirring a pot full of golden pumpkin soup, Hodge prefers to discuss Liberia’s future rather than dwell on the past.
The entrepreneur, restaurateur and sociology student plans to open Liberia’s first art-house cinema, in the capital, and hopes that more young people will seek to better themselves.
“More young people should be challenging themselves, seeking opportunities and getting creative,” said Hodge, offering advice to her restaurant’s 16-strong staff - half of whom are students.
“Liberia needs more young entrepreneurs.”