Between July 26 and August 2, 2020, MAS Context exclusively hosted the digital screening of Uppland, a documentary by filmmaker Edward Lawrenson and architect Killian Doherty. The start of the screening coincided with the anniversary of the Liberian Declaration of Independence adopted by the Liberian Constitutional Convention on July 26, 1847.
In the late 1950s, a Liberian-American-Swedish company called LAMCO established mining operations in the remote highlands of Liberia. The arrival of this multinational firm spurred the design and construction of a sprawling modernist new town called Yekepa to house employees and their families. Today this new town is almost entirely abandoned, its buildings empty and facilities left to ruin. What remains tells a story of colonialism, of environmental destruction, an elusive beast and the empty promises of industrialization.
Our story of Yekepa begins in 1955, on Christmas Eve, when Scottish geologist Sandy Clarke discovered the largest ore deposit he’d ever seen. By the end of the decade, LAMCO had begun mining work, with Clarke acting as is chief geologist. A few years later the company is extracting iron ore from a mountain of profound cultural value to the locals.
To accommodate its employees and their families, LAMCO builds a large new town, boasting modernist architecture, replete with western-style amenities. Yekepa is soon referred to by locals as “an America in Liberia” for its likeness to towns in the US, seen in pictures, and now seemingly built from scratch in an isolated part of West Africa.
Today there are no more LAMCO workers in Yekepa. Once the iron ore deposit was depleted, operations were shut down, the employees and their families returned home, and the town abandoned (a sense of decline accelerated by the coming civil wars in Liberia).
Uppland features interviews with members of a Mano tribe who for generations lived on the land that Yekepa was built upon (and were displaced by mining operations), as well as former LAMCO employees, alongside remarkable Super-8mm home movies and archive photography. Uncovering the history of Yekepa, filmmaker Edward Lawrenson and architect Killian Doherty explore the demise of a once-thriving community, an episode that speaks to the tragic legacies of colonialism and the extractive industries’ involvement in the region.
And the beast? According to Mano beliefs, the beast, or “zena,” was a creature said to patrol the mountain where the iron ore was discovered. It has, however, mysteriously disappeared, last seen by villagers when Sandy Clarke first laid eyes on the mountain.
In 2017, as part of the MAS Context Spring Talks series, Killian Doherty discussed the film as a work-in-progress and introduced short extracts from the film. For more information of the event: www.mascontext.com/events/mas-context-spring-talks-2017/killian-doherty-june-13-2017.
On July 26, we also organized a virtual conversation with Killian Doherty, Edward Lawrenson, and Sumayya Vally moderated by Danny Hoffman. For more information and to watch the conversation: www.mascontext.com/events/mas-context-fall-talks-2020/uppland-panel-discussion.
Director: Edward Lawrenson
Based on research by: Killian Doherty
Produced and written by: Killian Doherty and Edward Lawrenson
Filmed and edited by: Edward Lawrenson
Sound: Philippe Ciompi
Music: Sam Hooper
Country: UK / Ireland
Runtime: 29 minutes 30 seconds
Cinema du réel, Pompidou Centre, March 2018
Venice Biennale Architettura, Lithuania Pavilion, June 2018
Open City Documentary Festival, London, September 2018
Kaunas International Film Festival, Lithuania, September 2018
Janela Internacional de Cinema, Recife, Brazil, November 2018
Cork Film Festival, Ireland, November
First Look 2019, Museum of Moving Image, New York, January 2019
Star and Shadow, Newcastle upon Tyne, May, 2019
Tabor Film Festival, Croatia, July 2019
Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, September 2019
We want to thank Lily Spitz and Grasshopper Film, distributors of the non-theatrical screenings of this film in the US, for making this online screening possible.
The film was made possible in part through funding from the Open City Docs, Arts Council of Ireland and the Bartlett School of Architecture.
Danny Hoffman, “The ruins of a mining economy,” Africa is a Country, May 2019.
Killian Doherty is an architect with an interest in post-conflict/disaster built environments. Through his practice and research he explores how “development,” as regeneration, (re)produces unevenness in cities across the Global North and South. With experience in social and affordable housing through practice in Ireland, Killian has also worked with ex-black panther, Malik Rahim, in the Lower ninth ward of New Orleans following hurricane Katrina in 2007, on a number of housing, social and environmental restoration projects. Since then his work has been situated in the post-war reconstruction contexts of Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. In 2014 he was awarded the Frederick Bonnart Scholarship to undertake his PhD by Design at the University College London, Bartlett School of Architecture. He is currently assistant professor/lecturer in Architecture and Urbanism at Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA).
www.architecturalfieldoffice.org | @ArchitectureFO
Edward Lawrenson is a Scottish filmmaker and writer based in London. His films have played at a number of festivals, including Sundance, BFI London Film Festival, True/False, Open City; and cinemas, including the Museum of the Moving Image in New York and London’s ICA. He has also made radio documentaries for BBC Radio 4. Lawrenson’s 2014 documentary Abandoned Goods (codirected with Pia Borg) won the Golden Leopard for Best International Short at the Locarno Film Festival and he was named as one of Filmmaker Magazine‘s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2015. He is a Senior Lecturer in Filmmaking and Kingston School of Art, Kingston University.
www.edwardlawrenson.com | @EdwardLawrenson