Idris Elba on building a film school in Sierra Leone: 'We need to tell our own story'

The actor was at Abu Dhabi's Impact Summit last week to share his dream plan

Actor Idris Elba wants to revitalise Sherbro Island in Sierra Leone. Antonie Robertson / The National
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British actor Idris Elba is sweating as he walks into our interview room.

He's just finished speaking at the recently concluded Impact Summit in Abu Dhabi, and even though the event was held outdoors under the glorious sunshine, the extra sheen on his forehead could be the result of subjecting his dream project to the scrutiny of investors and entrepreneurs.

Organised by Hub 71, a platform for start-ups and investors, Elba joined regional and international business leaders at the summit to discuss new ventures and financial trends.

Not bad for someone who only a few days ago was hosting the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles.

“When I am on screen, I can be convincing,” he told the audience in Abu Dhabi. “Over here it is different and while this is not exactly my field, I welcome the conversations and scrutiny because I will learn from this.”

All my life, I wanted to reframe how people saw Africans

During his session, Elba was as committed and charming as his work on the big screen, only this time the payoff is potentially more transformational than any Oscar.

An island story

Located in the Atlantic Ocean, Sierra Leone’s Sherbro Island is touted as a potential tourism destination with its relatively underdeveloped coastline and pristine beaches.

Formerly a vital knot within the Atlantic slave trade and with a population of about 30,000 people, it’s also a nesting ground for green sea turtles and is a favourite destination for sports fishermen as it boasts some of biggest tarpons in the world.

Elba, born to a Sierra Leonean father and Ghanaian mother, hopes that with the help of international investors, as well as environmental and cultural organisations, he can revitalise the island.

“It has an incredible environment for tourism. It has the winter sun, it's not too far from Europe and has a beautiful landscape. It's an opportunity for development,” Elba told the investors at the summit.

Speaking exclusively to The National after the discussion, he says he wants the project to ultimately help change perceptions regarding the continent.

"All my life, I wanted to reframe how people saw Africans," he says. "I grew up in London where people used to call Africans all kinds of disrespectful names and it got to a point in my teens where I was going through my own personality crisis. I didn't want to be called African.

“My real name is Idrissa and I shortened it to Idris."

The redevelopment of Sherbro Island aims to change the narrative by also being home to a “world class film and television school” set to be established by Elba, who played Nelson Mandela in the 2013 biographical film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom alongside roles in blockbusters The Suicide Squad and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.

"It does seem like a weird thing to have there and I should be thinking about other things first," he says.

"But when you think about America and China, they spend a lot of time propagating their culture. America became an interesting place because of Hollywood when it was at its height. The rolling hills of California doesn’t look like the movies, but it was made in those film studios which told people how beautiful America was. So telling our own stories is vital.”

It's also an untapped market, Elba notes.

He estimates Africa's creative industry could be worth up to $20 billion, while there are only 4,000 cinemas functioning in the continent that is home to 1.4 billion people.

"There are not a lot of cinemas but there are not too many stories being told either,“ he says. "I want to help change that but providing opportunities and telling the story of this island.”

From London to Africa

As a father of two, Elba is aware of how a lack of opportunities can lead youth astray, citing the knife crime rates in London as an example.

Elba recently launched Don’t Stop Your Future, a campaign with UK community organisations and activists calling for an immediate ban on machetes and associated weapons.

The campaign comes with its own theme song, Knives Down, which has Elba rapping alongside grime artist DB Maz.

"The youthful energy in Africa, in places like Sierra Leone and Ghana, is the same as in London. What I am doing in Africa and London are guided by the same motivations," he says.

“When that energy is being wasted in some cases, the youth can turn against themselves and with that comes violence.

”I understand that because I'm African and from London and my life could have easily gone to the left if I didn't receive some guidance.”

Giving himself a healthy deadline of “20 summers” to see his vision for Sherbro Island completed, Elba says he still has plenty for other things he wants to achieve in that time frame.

"To be honest, I am not really thinking about legacy. If I do leave something worthwhile behind then it will be amazing but not intentional," he says.

"I just hope to improve upon every single day I get."

Updated: March 06, 2024, 2:27 PM