Reliving a horror in his movies

Abraham Dahn, in character on the movie set in Overbrook's Morris Park earlier this year, plays a Liberian rebel who rapes a refugee, a pivotal point in the plot. Paul Ngafua
Abraham Dahn, in character on the movie set in Overbrook's Morris Park earlier this year, plays a Liberian rebel who rapes a refugee, a pivotal point in the plot. Paul Ngafua
Posted: July 25, 2012

A BLOODY, amputated arm and leg lie amid the rocks near a stream in Overbrook's Morris Park, as Liberian refugees trudge barefooted amid rebels shouting and waving guns.

One woman is shot to death by a rebel. Another is raped.

The scene — in a movie written, directed and produced by Prinze Whyee, a Liberian refugee who now lives in Philly — re-creates horrors Whyee saw or heard as a child fleeing his home in Monrovia, Liberia, and walking with strangers toward the Ivory Coast.

"I want it to be more graphic," Whyee, 28, said of his movie, "The Blessed Curse," which will premiere Sept. 14 at a Southwest Philadelphia church. "I saw arms amputated. I saw decapitated heads. I saw people with rifles."

He wants to "show things like it was" during Liberia's civil war.

This is Whyee's second movie. His first — "Killing Me Softly," about "love and betrayal" and available in local African stores — won the best-movie award at the Liberian Entertainment Awards in Atlanta this year. Whyee was named best filmmaker, too.

For "Blessed Curse," co-directed with Bryant Sengbe, Whyee wanted to take his actors to Liberia but didn't have the money. He instead re-created scenes in Morris Park and a friend's concrete-walled basement in Yeadon, Delaware County, which looked like the inside of a Liberian home.

He bought props (the bloody arm, leg, fake blood, bones and a skull) at the Halloween Adventure store on Columbus Boulevard and, at Walmart, toy guns, which he spray-painted black.

He picked Morris Park for the jungle scenes.

"I was looking for something like Africa," with "the thickness of the forests, the narrow pathways, the streams," Whyee said recently, sitting in his small studio in the Overbrook home where he lives with his father.

The film also includes stock footage of scenes in Liberia, on Africa's western coast.

A treacherous journey

Whyee was born and raised in Monrovia, Liberia's capital.

His father, Kai-Matthew Whyee, worked for the Ministry of Hope, a Christian organization, as a producer for a televangelical TV program. Through his work, he met some members of the Flint, Mich.-based Christian Development Church who were visiting Liberia. They sponsored him to go to the U.S. on a visitor's visa to do some work for them in Michigan.

Kai-Matthew Whyee left for the United States in 1988. In December that year, Charles Taylor, the brutal warlord who would become president, led a group of rebels to invade Liberia from the Ivory Coast. Full-blown war broke out in 1990.

"I couldn't go back," Whyee, 57, said during an interview in his Overbrook home. In 1990, he moved to the Philadelphia area, where he had a cousin, and was granted asylum to stay in the U.S.

Back in Liberia, Whyee's wife and children moved to a remote part of Monrovia, where they lived in what's known as a zinc shack. Prinze Whyee's aunt and cousins lived in another zinc shack on the same grounds. They used an outhouse and showered with a bucket. They hauled pails of water from a hand pump across the street for cooking, cleaning, bathing and drinking.

To feed the family, Whyee's mother grew peppers, okra, eggplant and greens in her small backyard garden. She walked the streets and spread the vegetables on a cloth outside a marketplace to sell them.

That was how they survived as rebels fought government troops outside Monrovia in one of the bloodiest civil wars in Africa, the first phase of which lasted until 1996, killed more than 200,000 people and displaced more than a million people who fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries. (Taylor was convicted this year by an international tribunal in The Hague of crimes against humanity for his support aiding rebels in Sierra Leone's bloody civil war; he was sentenced to 50 years behind bars.)

When Taylor's rebels invaded the area near Prinze Whyee's home around September 1996, his and his aunt's families fled. In the chaos, 12-year-old Prinze got separated from his mother, two brothers, sister, aunt and cousins. "Imagine a lot of people running," he said. "[My mother] just lost me."

Barefoot, with nothing but the clothes on his body, he began walking with a group of people he didn't know. "The city was just in havoc, mayhem," Whyee said. "You could hear gunfire as you walked along. You could see dead bodies along the way."

The group walked from Monrovia through the rural land and towns of Liberia, heading east toward the Ivory Coast, avoiding the major roads so they wouldn't come across rebels or government forces. They rested in villagers' mud huts. "It was a long journey," Whyee said. After about a month, they made it to the jungle area near the border.

After crossing into the Ivory Coast, they got on a truck and were taken to the border town of Toulépleu. They then traveled to a refugee camp in Danané.

Whyee spent more than three years in the Ivory Coast, first in a refugee-camp tent, then in an unfinished brick house with a refugee family he had befriended on his journey from Monrovia.

He got lucky when someone in the refugee camp who knew his father got word to him that Prinze was there. The father applied for his son to come to the U.S. as a refugee and contacted the rest of their family, who had made their way back to Monrovia, to join Prinze in the refugee camp.

Prinze Whyee's mother and sister spent two years with him in Danané until he was flown to the U.S. as a refugee on Feb. 7, 2000, at age 15. He was resettled by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Catholic Social Services and reunited with his dad, who at the time lived in Upper Darby.

He hasn't seen his mother or siblings in Liberia since.

Prinze Whyee graduated from Upper Darby High School in 2001. He attended Lincoln University but transferred to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he received his bachelor's degree in communications media.

He now works for SEAMAAC, the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, a nonprofit in South Philadelphia. For about two years, he has been teaching video production to students in SEAMAAC's after-school Hip Hop Heritage program.

Kevin Ramirez, SEAMAAC's youth-programs director, said of Whyee: "He's passionate about video and he's passionate about working with young people."

In 2010, Whyee started his own multimedia and production company, Ducor Media Films.

‘The Blessed Curse'

Whyee's new film, inspired by the Liberian civil war, stars three Liberian actors who now live in the Philadelphia region — Diamond Sonpon, Anthony Khruah and Abraham Dahn. Khruah and Sonpon play a husband and wife living in Monrovia.

Sonpon's character hasn't conceived, so her parents-in-law consider her "good for nothing," Whyee said. When Taylor's troops attack Monrovia, Sonpon and Khruah flee the capital. In the jungle by the Ivory Coast border, a rebel played by Dahn rapes Sonpon, and she later gives birth to his baby boy.

The baby "is a blessing for her because she wanted a child," Whyee said, "but it's also a curse" because she was raped.

The movie continues in Philadelphia, where Sonpon and Khruah end up as refugees. There are surprises in the film, so we don't want to reveal too much. Besides bringing to life elements of the civil war, the movie is about forgiveness and is a way to educate people that it's not right to ridicule women who are childless, especially since it may not be the woman's fault, said Whyee.

After the premiere in Philadelphia, Whyee plans to show the film in Minnesota, Denver, New York City and Atlantic City.

Fleeing from Monrovia as a frightened child "was the worst experience of my life," he said. "Right now, I consider myself to be blessed because I went through that with the protection of God." Looking to the future, he wonders how to "give back" to "my countrymen? How do I help them? I don't have the money to give them."

He hopes to one day make enough money from his films to create a fund that would help people in Liberia, including former child soldiers, who have been traumatized from the war.

"The Blessed Curse" will premiere Sept. 14 at the Church of the Living God Holy Ghost Intercessory Ministry, 2135 S. 61st Street (near Woodland Avenue). Tickets ($25 in advance or $30 at the door) include food and drinks. Red carpet event begins at 7 p.m., followed by dinner at 8 and a screening at 10. Tickets at ducormediafilms.net/#!premiere or 267-507-8187.

Contact Julie Shaw at 215-854-2592 or shawj@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @julieshawphilly.

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