While perhaps best known for their notoriously no-holds-barred counterculture magazine, in recent years the guys behind Vice have been branching out by making their way to some of the world's more troubled spots to produce travel documentaries from the front line. In keeping with the Vice style, the films are edgy, unfiltered, and unapologetic about their brash pursuit of extreme subjects. While they eschew the kind of studied neutrality that tends to dominate foreign reporting, Vice's more transparent approach appears to be something that the mainstream media is increasingly interested in showcasing, judging by the recently announced partnership between CNN and the company's online video site, VBS.tv.
In their latest film, "The Vice Guide to Liberia," which debuted in serial form this month on VBS.tv, Vice co-founder Shane Smith heads deep into the heart of a country left ravaged by brutal civil wars. As he makes his way around Liberia he encounters staggering poverty, squalor, and drug-addiction, and catches up with a number of notorious ex-warlords with colorful names such as General Rambo and General Butt Naked, the latter having gotten his name based on his style of dress, or rather undress, during combat. The film provides a rare and revealing look at a troubled country that is once again teetering on the brink of collapse.
HuffPost recently caught up with Smith by phone to talk to him about the new film. [All 8 parts are now available to watch on VBS. Scroll down to the bottom for a preview.]
HUFFINGTON POST: You've done a number of travel films now, such as the "Vice Guide to North Korea." What initially got you into making these travel documentaries?
SHANE SMITH: Well, when we started expanding the magazine, every country we went to, they had these crazy stories, and we were like 'wow, that'd be great, why don't we do that.' So we went and got cameras and very publicly went to film production school doing the "Vice Guide to Travel." Even though we didn't do a very good job on it, people really liked it, and so we realized there were a lot of people that wanted to see this stuff. We went to Bulgaria where they were selling warheads on the black market, to Chernobyl, to Congo.
HUFFINGTON POST: You mention in the film that Vice has long been fascinated by Liberia, and cite the fact that it's America's only foray into colonialism in Africa. What initially got you interested?
SHANE SMITH: In the magazine we had written about General Butt Naked, who fought naked and his warriors fought naked, versus the Tupac army, named so because they had stolen a container that had all Tupac Shakur t-shirts, so that became the sort of military dress. It was stuff like that, weird cultural anomalies. [You can read the article, "Gen. Butt Naked vs. The Tupac Army," here]
HUFFINGTON POST: The situation in Liberia, whether it be the violence or the poverty or the mounds of rotting garbage that are everywhere, appears pretty bleak. What surprised you most about the country during your time there?
SHANE SMITH: Cannibalism was a big deal. How many people talked about it, how it was sort of prevalent. During the war, people would eat human flesh for necessity, but also for ritual. And it still continues. People would point at the old Masonic Lodge and say, 'Oh, there was a lot of cannibalism there.' Some of it is probably rumor and some of it is urban myth, but every single person you talk to is like 'oh, yeah, yeah.' And cannibalism is just something you never experience, or talk about over dinner; it's never a discussion you're used to having. And when you talk about it all day with everyone you meet, it starts to get a little bit unsettling. I'd say 90 percent of my conversations had some sort of cannibalism in them.
HUFFINGTON POST: You end the film talking about the possibility of the UN mission leaving Liberia in the near future and the consequences that could have. Do you think all hell is likely to break loose if they go?
SHANE SMITH: One of the things I came away with is there are a lot of ex-combatants, a lot of them, who have known nothing but war, are starving, living in slums. They have access to weapons, there are generals who will lead them, who are starving as well, and there's been no effort to help these guys get back into society, in fact it's quite the opposite. So you have these guys who've got nothing, they're starving, and if you take away the only barrier between them and food and a mansion on the beach, and they have the guns and kids to do it, and they're starving too. There's not a lot of conjecture there, you know what I mean. It's ripe. HUFFINGTON POST: So how was the experience of traveling through Liberia different from, say, Iran or North Korea?
SHANE SMITH: At any time, anywhere you would go, you'd be surrounded by 30, 40, 50 kids, and young people and whomever, and they all wanted money, they're all starving. And if we didn't have generals with us we would have been totally fucked up and if we hadn't quite frankly lucked out a couple of times we would have been fucked up.
HUFFINGTON POST: You mean they would have just jumped you?
SHANE SMITH: Oh, for sure. The crime rate in Monrovia is astronomical. The crime rate in West Point [a notorious slum] is even higher. If you have 80 percent unemployment, you can do the math: 80 percent of the population is doing something criminal then just to survive. And there's not a lot of opportunity to get cash, so if some guy comes in with a car and a camera and a fucking nice pair of shoes, it's more money than they've ever seen. So that part was scary.
HUFFINGTON POST: Perhaps the most interesting character you chronicle is General Butt Naked, who was once a particularly brutal warlord, but has since reformed and become a preacher. You mention that you found him endearing, but also the unease you feel about liking a man who has, by his own account, personally killed as many as 20,000 people, some of which he says he cannibalized. Looking back on it now, how do you think about your time with him?
SHANE SMITH: I've got to say, it's a very strange thing. I went into Liberia and it was scary, and there were generals, and they were bad guys, and there's a lot of crime and a lot of poverty. And then I met this guy, and he's charming and he's nice, and he goes to church and the churches are nice and everything is calmer when he's around. And then you start to go, 'oh, this is nice.' And then when you're in your bed at night you go, this guy killed and ate people for a living. He was fucking one of the worst people in the history of warfare. It spins your brain out. It's confusing. HUFFINGTON POST: By now you've no doubt traversed a good amount of the globe. Is there anywhere in the world you are really dying to see or report on?
SHANE SMITH: I really want to do the kingdom of Mustang where like 100 percent of their GDP is making meth for Chinese prisons.
I want to go to the Maldives before they sink, but just because it's the most beautiful place on earth. And I really want to go to Mongolia. It's just apparently totally insane.
There's actually a place in Russia that has sort of North Korean slave workers sent by the North Korean government sent for money and resources and stuff that I want to go see. And I want to go to Vladivostok while I'm there because they make this huge mountain out of garbage and then just shove it into the sea.
Watch the entire "Vice Guide to Liberia" here.