Film Review: Freetown

A fact-based drama about Liberian missionaries escaping civil-war persecution that cares less for suspense than for Church of Latter Day Saints-centric sermonizing.
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Director Garrett Batty sermonizes with forthright fervor in Freetown, a fact-based story about courage, camaraderie and perseverance that functions as a thinly veiled advertisement for the Church of Latter Day Saints. Shot on location throughout Ghana, Batty’s film recounts the harrowing ordeal of Philip Abubakar (Henry Adofo), who along with six other Mormon missionaries from Liberia tries to escape to the Sierra Leone city of Freetown in 1989. That flight is instigated by Liberia’s civil war, which introductory onscreen text explains began because of a fraudulent election that favored Krahns (one of the country’s many ethnic tribes) and led to the rise of a rebel opposition intent on persecuting, if not outright murdering, anyone who was, or associated with, a Krahn. Since one of Abubakar’s missionaries is a member of that tribe, not to mention that he and his fellow religious leaders are incapable of carrying out their work amidst such violent turmoil, Abubakar and his six comrades are soon planning their surreptitious departure, which they aim to do via a tiny four-door car that can barely hold them all.

Batty lays out his premise with a modicum of fuss, but from early shots that linger on the missionaries putting on their church-affiliation name tags, to soaring African soundtrack singing over shots of Liberia’s gorgeous landscapes, Freetown steeps itself in a distinctly faith-based atmosphere. That alone isn’t a detriment, though as it charts Abubakar and company’s trials, the film repeatedly strikes the same monotonously preachy chord. Ostensibly the group’s leader, Abubakar is a man undergoing something of a minor spiritual crisis, and as he evades an evil rebel monster intent on stopping the missionaries from attaining freedom across the border, he struggles to believe that God is watching out for him, with Batty and Melissa Leilani Larson’s blunt script making plain at every turn that its prime concern is relating the renewal of his faith.

Despite its war-torn setting, Freetown eschews graphic depictions of brutality, confronting the horrors perpetrated by the rebels while nonetheless turning its camera away from them at the last second. Such a pulling-its-punches tactic is in keeping with the general flaccidness of the proceedings, which eventually involve Abubakar and his traveling companions bribing military men with their last remaining dollars, bartering for a precious few gallons of gasoline, and navigating a treacherous dirt-road puddle in which Abubakar’s rickety car, in the film’s opening scene, had become temporarily stuck.

Those incidents are staged with reasonable aesthetic competence but very little in the way of suspense or excitement, so that Freetown ultimately feels like a long, uneventful mission toward preordained liberation and salvation. That the film doesn’t even momentarily question its religious characters’ course of action–which involves them abandoning their posts, and their flock–somewhat undercuts such an uplifting trajectory. Yet more frustrating is simply the fact that its dialogue, when not serving a purely dull functional purpose, is designed as an unimaginative mouthpiece for the beliefs of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Draggy and one-note, it’s an indie more interested in reaffirming Mormon dogma than in delivering compelling drama.

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