Ryo Murakami (1979-2013) // photo: Luis Patrón / UNU
About the film
This deeply affecting short film is crafted from hours of footage shot by the late Japanese-American cinematographer Ryo Murakami on the Firestone Tire and Rubber Plantation in Liberia. NOTES FROM LIBERIA traces Ryo’s journey from the capital Monrovia, where the traumas of a brutal fifteen-year civil war still simmer beneath the surface, to the remote village of Harbel, the plantation company town named after Harvey and Isabelle Firestone.
NOTES FROM LIBERIA is a story about storytelling, a meditative reflection on the nature of documentary making and the nature of truth. The film interweaves images of Ryo’s shooting diary with reenacted audio excerpts, allowing his character the opportunity to reflect on his own filmmaking process and the way his camera interacts with the people he meets. From the moment he lands in Monrovia, Ryo’s voice creates a narrative thread throughout his journey.
Along with Ryo, the audience bears witness to the history of the Republic of Liberia and to the ongoing, unsettling alliance with Bridgestone Firestone’s million-acre rubber plantation. As one of the only people to film inside the restricted walls without Firestone’s knowledge, Ryo’s lens bears witness to a disturbing side of the multinational company.
Under the cover of night, Ryo trespasses onto the plantation grounds and enters a scarcely seen world, where coercive living conditions and labor practices have changed alarmingly little since the plantation opened in 1926. Journalistic access to the plantation is tightly controlled and monitored by the company, and Ryo’s footage is a rare independent vision of the lives of plantation workers that stands outside of the official Firestone account.
The Liberia he finds is lush with natural beauty yet bleak in its harsh realities of life, a place where inhumane working conditions and environmental negligence is the norm. But beyond the hardship, he also finds rare moments of defiance against a system of exploitation that’s been in place for nearly a century. Ryo’s patient and probing camera illuminates the harsh and enduring legacies of colonialism in Liberia, from the ex-child soldiers he encounters on a Monrovian beach to the rubber workers enduring excessive hours and low wages on the Firestone plantation.
In the summer of 2013, Ryo Murakami returned to the Firestone plantation to shoot a narrative film about tappers inspired by his documentary footage. Ryo contracted malaria and tragically passed away a few weeks later in New York at thirty-three. While the loss of the cinematographer and filmmaker is a lingering, palpable presence throughout NOTES FROM LIBERIA, Ryo is ever-present through his approach to shooting, and over the course of the film it becomes clear how the remarkable story will live on.