A friend posted a link to the Kickstarter page for Out of My Hand, a feature film shot primarily in Liberia. The plot follows a rubber tapper named Cisco who, after taking part in a heated labor dispute that goes nowhere, attempts to move to New York city where he becomes a cab driver. In the second part of the movie we see Cisco navigating the fractured Liberian community in New York, meeting characters that force him to confront his identity. Or something like that. It’s not finished yet. The Kickstarter was to raise funds for the American portion of the shoot.
The trailer, since taken down, had a beautiful melancholic quality I’d never seen in a film shot in the country. Most films about Liberia are gritty documentaries focussed almost perversely on the horrors of the civil war, or Johnny Mad Dog, a fiction film that does basically the same.
There are some other intriguing things about Out of My Hand. First, it’s based partially on an unfinished documentary about labor activists on the Firestone rubber plantation. Firestone, a “state within a state,” is the largest contiguous rubber plantation in the world and has historically played a nasty corrupting role in 20th century Liberian politics, manipulating national finances for its own ends and relying on forced labor—see the famous account by W.E.B. Dubois in Foreign Affairs. More recently, Firestone was cited for relying on children to meet production quotas. I tracked down the filmmaker Takeshi Fukunaga in Brooklyn to chat about the project. Here’s an edited version of our talk.
I’ve seen a lot of stuff come out of Liberia and it usually has the same narratives about war and trauma. Your trailer had a fresh look to it. Are you consciously working against narratives?
Well, yes. We were consciously being more unique, not just an “African narrative.” It’s a fiction movie. We know about harsh realities in the world. And while this movie is also based on very severe working and living conditions, the goal for me and my partner who wrote together, was to always portray people them the same way we portray ourselves. To be an outsider looking in, of course, it’s challenging. When I was writing it I’d never been to Liberia.
I first knew about Liberia and the world of the rubber plantation from working as an editor on a documentary made by my brother in law, who unfortunately passed after we came back from the shoot. But what I saw in the footage was the strength and dignity of people there despite really hard situations. That was really moving to me. So that was a connection I made. It wasn’t particularly about rubber. It was always about human beings. Those were the people I was moved by so I needed to go to Liberia to tell this story even though there are many other places that have huge rubber plantations.
What is the status of the documentary?
The doc has never been finished. But we will finish it.
I notice on your Kickstarter page that some of the scenes are recreated shot for shot.
One is a rubber tapping scene and another was a union meeting scene. I shot it in a way that was almost a recreation of what was in the documentary. The story starts from that setting but then goes in a totally different direction from what happens in the documentary.
The documentary was specifically about the workers and the actions taken by the union. Particularly in the Firestone rubber plantation. We never wanted (Out of My Hands) to be unnecessarily political. In the film we don’t intend to make any political statement per se. Simply, we are trying to tell a universal story. Of course Liberia is a big part of it and the rubber plantation is a big part of the story but it’s not about criticizing mass production or whatever. The focus is always human nature and a guy who is trying to go beyond his limit.
What is the Liberian movie union?
I was lucky to be connected with a Liberian living in the US who had worked on the first international narrative fiction movie made in Liberia, Johnny Mad Dog. About child soldiers and made by the French director (Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire). He connected me to the Liberian movie union. Basically, to conduct any shoot you need to get permission from the government. All that stuff went smoothly through working with the movie union.
Did they connect you to Liberian actors?
They helped us by setting up auditions. They made all the announcements on radio, TV shows and consequently many hundreds of actors came to the auditions. I was really impressed by how many talented actors there were there. It’s just unfortunate that there’s no way you can make a living by just being an actor in Liberia because there’s no industry really.
So everyone is a professional actor?
There are also a few actors for whom this is their acting debut. They never acted before. We made the call open because we knew that the options would be limited if we made it for people with experience. So it’s a mix of actors and first time actors. For example, when we shot in a village we often casted people who were living in the village as an extra or taking a small role and there’s this particular scene featuring this really famous guy named Joshua who is known for his name General Butt Naked.
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about him. How’d he get involved?
Well, Liberia is a small country so when I told the movie union and the assistant I had there that I wanted to meet with him it was easy. He tours around preaching. That particular scene he is basically being himself. We just set up the environment and brought in extras but what he did wasn’t really acting. He was being himself within this environment that we created.
Were you filming on the Firestone plantation?
No, it was a plantation run by a French company. Firestone never gives out permission to shoot in the plantation. They’re very sensitive about media.
In the movie it’s Firestone?
No, unnamed. Although the cup to catch the latex attached to the tree is red and people see the red cup and recognize it as the Firestone plantation but in reality there’s some other plantations that use the red cup it just seemed cinematically that it was the best option visually. It’s not like we had the intention… It’s tricky. At the same time the documentary was shot in Firestone and is about the workers who work in the Firestone plantation.
How does the plot move from Liberia to New York?
The main character is working under these severe working conditions. They unionize and call a strike. And basically it doesn’t go anywhere and he just kills time with a bunch of his friends. And then through his cousin who has been living in New York for many years he decides to move to New York to become a cab driver. But just as many Liberian people think of America as a land of milk and honey, so does the main character. Once he comes here there’s of course other struggles and challenges that he has to face. But the main thing that happens is he meets with two Liberians. One is a former child soldier and another is a wealthy businessman who put him in a situation basically to confront his own sense of self. His own identity. It’s all very character driven.
Did you do research in Staten Island?
Yeah, a little bit. Well, I read the book (Little Liberia) and visited Staten Island a couple of times. Read articles about it. That’s how I found out about the situation where former child soldiers and their victims live next door to each other and the complicated situations they face.
Do you consider yourself a Japanese or American filmmaker?
It’s hard to say. Of course I was born and raised in Japan but I started my career here. The reason why I’m so attracted to filmmaking is its universal nature. I always want to tell a universal story no matter where I’m shooting or what kind of subject matter I’m tackling. So like aesthetically of course, it’s my Japanese aesthetic that is going to be there but to say I’m a Japanese filmmaker or an American filmmaker, I don’t know.