Life, Camera, Action.
A US Marine on his quest to change the world through film.
Rewind to 1987, Sierra Leone. A 9-year-old boy, Folleh Francis Shar Tamba, stealing 5 dollars from his grandmother’s purse to miss school and watch movies at the village theatre.
It’s rain season, and Tamba is having trouble hearing the film over the rain, roaring against the thin metal rooftop of the small square building with no air conditioning, no windows and just one door. There are no cushioned seats and armrest drink holders, but wooden benches lined up on dirt floors.
For $5 Tamba could watch three movies in the theatre, dripping with sweat, drawn into the action films projected from VHS tapes. But he didn’t care about the heat, the sweat, or the rain. Nor did he care about the fit his mother would have when she discovered the missing money. At a young age, Tamba discovered a love for the arts that would shape him for the rest of his life.
“You can just escape the real world through film and I fell in love with it,” he said. “I realized how powerful motion picture was and I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.”
Relocating with his family to Monrovia, Liberia, Tamba found himself in the middle of civil war breaking out in 1990. Along with his parents who were medical practitioners but accused of belonging to rebel groups, Tamba was pulled out of his home with a rifle barrel pressed against his head.
“That day changed my life,” Tamba said. “At that moment I knew someday I would fight against oppression.”
Displaced to a refugee camp without anything except the clothes on his back, Tamba survived his childhood by selling fruit and cigarettes to provide for his family. When the war ended, Tamba—18 at the time and barely knowing any English—traveled to Chicago and enrolled at Amundsen high school. Late after school hours, Tamba would work with his English teacher Ms. Landers, reading poetry and stories to develop his literacy.
“As I started to learn English, I began to discover great artists,” Tamba said. “Like Shakespeare, Hemmingway and even Pink Floyd.”
Continuing to follow his dream after graduating at 21, he enrolled at Columbia College to study film where he met another student, Juan Montelongo. Throughout college they worked on numerous projects together, and just like many students, they were faced with the question of what was next after graduation. They needed a big project, and needed to get serious. So they decided to start a film company.
“We told each other we would do whatever it takes,” Montelongo said. “Even if it means walking into a Chase Manhattan Bank asking if they gave out money to produce films.”
At which they did. “How hard could it be, right?” They asked themselves.
It was hard. Banks don’t offer money for films.
“We knew we needed to be a little more serious than that,” Montelongo said, laughing. “But it showed that we were willing to go as far as embarrassing ourselves.”
Not long after the bank incident, Montelongo received a phone call from Tamba, telling him he was joining the U.S. Marines.
Press play on any news program and you will see coverage of Marines urinating on dead combatants, or an Iraqi war veteran murdering innocent lives, assumed of suffering the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 2011 the New York Times attested to a veteran crime wave due to PTSD, stating that there have been 121 accounts of murder from Iraq or Afghanistan war veterans.
“The news conflicts with what really goes on there and never show all the positive things that the military does,” Tamba said. “The media is a business and because of politics, it’s hard for it to be neutral. I want to show people the real footage. Then they can draw their own conclusion.”
Deployed to Iraq in 2004, and armed with a video camera, he set out to show a truthful lens of the U.S. military. Months later, Montelongo receives a phone call.
It was Tamba, returning from his deployment. “I got some really good footage,” he said.
And so began their company, Wolfdog Films.
Their first film, “The Triangle of Death,” documented Tamba’s deployment during one of the most dangerous times in Iraq. Screened in numerous universities and 40 film festivals across the country, it has won numerous awards for best documentary, aired on the Military Channel, and is soon to be placed in the Library of Congress for historic record.
“It’s difficult to explain war—but to show it—is powerful,” Tamba said. “I never dreamed I would be surviving in America with people watching my films.”
Fast forward to the present, a 34-year-old Tamba, lifting weights at a local gym. Wearing his US Marines sweatpants and sweatshirt—worn during his eight years of service since 2003—he’s well spoken in English after attaining two bachelors degrees from Columbia College and is currently working on his masters.
Since “Triangle of Death,” Tamba has created one other documentary, “The Line of Departure,” another award winning documentary giving a retrospective look into the last day of a marine before deploying to Afghanistan. He’s currently working on his first fictional feature film, “The Quiet African,” a story of a man whose father was killed in civil war escalated by political arms dealing.
In post-production are several other projects, ranging in content from the training of U.S. Marines, to the $11.6 billion deal between Chicago and Morgan Stanley to lease out Chicago’s parking meters.
“The films I make have to have a global issue that people can learn from,” he said. “I take an element of injustice and infuse it into my movie.”
Pause for reflection. “The best thing I ever did was become a Marine,” he said, feeling honored to educate himself, bring his family from Sierra Leone and fight for his adopted country.
“There’s a debt that I owe to America for giving me everything I have,” he said. “But how do you give back?”
According to Montelongo, Tamba is constantly talking about living in a better society, service to your country and service to your community. Montelongo assumes it may be the Marine in him, or the paternal-like qualities he displays to his family and those he meets, or the desire for memories of an oppressed childhood not to be experienced by anyone else.
“He’s more concerned about helping you and that stands against the stigma society has about Marines,” Montelongo said. “For me, he changed my perspective of what an action hero really is.”