Thomas Morton played a local priest in a Nigerian rom-com, Isobel Yeung met Sudanese women who braved the threat of assault to feed their families, and more.
Over the past four seasons of our Emmy-nominated HBO show, VICE correspondents have traveled the globe to report on the world’s most important stories. They’ve covered everything from sexual assault on America’s college campuses to the Ebola epidemic and the Syrian refugee crisis.
This year, VICE is back with its fifth season, premiering on HBO Friday at 11 PM, and our correspondents have brought back a crop of all-new stories from the far-reaching corners of the world and our own backyard here in the States. In anticipation of the new season, we asked some of our intrepid hosts to share their most memorable moments from out in the field and why they’ve stuck with them since returning home.
Thomas Morton, "Nollywood"
Nigerian cinema isn’t internationally known for its comedies. Western audiences usually break out in uproarious laughter at the Kabuki-esque overacting and Microsoft Paint–grade special effects rather than their witty repartee or innovative physical humor. After I landed in Lagos to pursue an acting career in the country’s notoriously ad hoc and fast-paced movie industry, I discovered that this is the result of a major oversight by the curators of the Nollywood foreign market.
Nigerians slay at intentional comedy. From heady meta-colonial fare like Osuofia in London (a sort of The Gods Must Be Crazy take on King Ralph) to your basic Chris Farley–style fat-guy slapstick like Mr. Ibu (Uncle Buck plus Mr. Bean), Nollywood cranks out the funny stuff at a speed that makes the South Park guys look like tortoises and with a disinhibition that makes them look like Christian schoolmarms. This is a national film scene that completely disavows both meanings of the query "too soon?"
After portraying the local priest in a village rom-dram directed by Lancelot Imasuen, a filmmaker with 200-plus titles under his belt, I accompanied the Nigerian Fassbinder back to his studio to peruse his back catalog. Among the insane myriad of dramas, historical epics, and action flicks (including 2008 election tie-in Obama, in no way about the president mind you), we hit an old comedic number he’d done in October 2001 called Uncle Wayward.
The plot is your standard nobody-believes-what-I-see comedy of errors in the tradition of Harvey—only in lieu of a 6’8" rabbit hallucinated by Jimmy Stewart, the Harvey of Uncle Wayward is Osama bin Laden, fresh from the 9/11 attacks and hiding out in Lagos to beat the heat. That’s right. One of Nigeria’s most prolific and best-respected directors made a bin Laden comedy a month after the World Trade Center went down. How’s that for chutzpah? And it’s hilarious. As I sat with Imasuen, trying to watch the ending through my tear-filled eyes, I thought, without a doubt, This is one moment I will never forget.
A few weeks ago, we returned from the Philippines, where we covered the extrajudicial killings ravaging the country. President Rodrigo Duterte, who has openly compared himself to Hitler, mandated this war on drugs and these killings when he took office eight months ago. Since then, an estimated 7,000 people have been murdered.
We witnessed dead bodies bleed out onto the concrete of slum alleyways. Loved ones mourned on street corners while desensitized kids laughed and played close by. One teen told me the corpse lying a mere ten feet from us was the third he’d seen that week.
On our final day, we visited Quezon City Jail in Manila, which the guards told us was six times over capacity with inmates who are not only free to roam the grounds but permitted to have straight razors and scissors. Being the only woman in the group, surrounded shoulder to shoulder by men, I had no other choice but to trust the unarmed, portly warden escorting us around. While I heard many a "hi, ma’am," I also saw some fierce death stares that clearly envied our freedom.
The prison gangs are split up into the rooms they sleep in. We walked into an unbelievably crowded one to speak with an inmate who had been in prison for seven years. I asked him what he was charged with. As a big smile crept across his face, he said, "Murder."
Isobel Yeung, "South Sudan"
During my recent trip to South Sudan, I spent some time in Bentiu, Unity State, where a famine was just declared.
The UN Mission in South Sudan runs the Protection of Civilian site, where 120,000 people from the Nuer tribe call home. The camp, one massive sprawl, operates much like a city, except food and resources are extremely limited, and firewood for cooking is not provided.
We accompanied a group of young women and children outside the camp. Every day, these women walk five hours in the sweltering heat, just to reach a forest to look for firewood, before having to turn around and walk all the way back to camp.
These women told me that government soldiers, who roam the surrounding fields, frequently attack them. On the day we met them, they described how, just the day before, they were resting under the shade of a tree when soldiers appeared and began raping and beating them and stealing their wood.
I asked why they still leave their compound, knowing that there’s a daily risk of sexual and physical assault. They told me that without wood, their families would starve to death.
This speaks volumes of the terrifying state of the country. The most shocking thing of all, though, was their unwaveringly positive disposition: They hum as they walk, they joke around, and they smile incessantly. After all, this is their life, and they’d rather laugh than cry.
Charlet Duboc, "Standing Rock"
We were filming up in North Dakota at the Standing Rock reservation when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that the construction of the contentious Dakota Access pipeline would be terminated. I witnessed something uniquely compelling and surreal that day.
There was a bittersweet quality to the celebratory atmosphere, a sort of theoretical victory against big oil. Throughout the camp, there was widespread skepticism that this news could truly mean an end to the struggle, so instead of straight-up partying, the self-identifying "water protectors" decided to go ahead with a protest they had organized. So, even though there were no longer authorities or anybody from the oil company actually there, and despite the onset of a hostile snow blizzard, the activists and Native Americans seemed compelled to protest anyway. Everyone trudged along with banners and flags, chanting and doing a traditional war dance.
Caught up in this dramatic incident, I quickly realized that since there was no physical opponent to address, whether by design or serendipity, the protest was in fact more of a performance for the cameras. Even so, there wasn’t much media braving the inclement weather, so, at VICE, we felt almost like we were alone with the hundreds of protesters as they directed all their attention, words, and movements toward our lens. It struck me in that moment the extent to which this protest has been a product of the digital age, the next in the line of modern day civil rights movements following Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Pipelines are all over the US—but for native nations, this is their moment.
Wilbert Cooper, "Bionic Future"
My segment was all about exploring the most advanced ways scientists have been integrating technology into the human body. My mind was blown after I saw a guy who was paralyzed win a bicycle race thanks to electronic implants that sent signals to the nerves in his legs. I even got to witness surgeons implant an electrode into the brain of a man with Parkinson’s disease in an attempt to bring back his mobility and stop tremors.
But, by far, the most incredible thing I saw was a paralyzed young man who had a port implanted in his brain that allowed his mind to connect directly with a computer. Through this brain-computer interface, he was able to bypass his spinal injuries and send brain waves directly to a special sleeve wrapped around his arm, allowing him to control and move his limb with dexterity and precision.
It was truly powerful to see the ways in which modern technology could be integrated into the bodies of people with disabilities so that they could get back some of the mobility and independence that they lost after injuries or disease. It showed me just how close we are to a time when bionics will be a part of everyday life and the joy those advancements could potentially bring to the lives of everyday people.