A film by Edward Lawrenson
2018, 30 minutes
No. 179

2021 Society of Architectural Historian's film and video award winner.

In the late 1950s, a Liberian-American-Swedish company called LAMCO established mining operations in the remote highlands of Liberia. The arrival of this multinational firm spurred the design and construction of a sprawling modernist new town called Yekepa to house employees and their families. Today this new town is almost entirely abandoned, its buildings empty and facilities left to ruin. What remains tells a story of colonialism, of environmental destruction, an elusive beast and the empty promises of industrialization.

Our story of Yekepa begins in 1955, on Christmas Eve, when Scottish geologist Sandy Clarke discovered the largest ore deposit he’d ever seen. By the end of the decade, LAMCO had begun mining work, with Clarke acting as is chief geologist. A few years later the company is extracting iron ore from a mountain of profound cultural value to the locals.

To accommodate its employees and their families, LAMCO builds a large new town, boasting modernist architecture, replete with western-style amenities. Yekepa is soon referred to by locals as “an America in Liberia” for its likeness to towns in the US, seen in pictures, and now seemingly built from scratch in an isolated part of West Africa.

Today there are no more LAMCO workers in Yekepa. Once the iron ore deposit was depleted, operations were shut down, the employees and their families returned home, and the town abandoned (a sense of decline accelerated by the coming civil wars in Liberia).

Uppland features interviews with members of a Mano tribe who for generations lived on the land that Yekepa was built upon (and were displaced by mining operations), as well as former LAMCO employees, alongside remarkable Super-8mm home movies and archive photography. Uncovering the history of Yekepa, filmmaker Edward Lawrenson and architect Killian Doherty explore the demise of a once-thriving community, an episode that speaks to the tragic legacies of colonialism and the extractive industries’ involvement in the region. 

And the beast? According to Mano beliefs, the beast, or ‘zena’, was a creature said to patrol the mountain where the iron ore was discovered. It has, however, mysteriously disappeared, last seen by villagers when Sandy Clarke first laid eyes on the mountain.

Official Selection, Cinema du Reel
Official Selection, Venice Biennale Architettura
Official Selection, Open City Documentary Festival

"Each chapter weaves together historical still and moving images, on-camera interviews, and beautifully shot observational footage. Uppland avoids most of the pitfalls of the narrated, exploitation documentary genre, its disembodied voice-over never becoming too authoritative, outraged, or self-indulgent—a rare achievement in this ever-expanding field." - Africa Is a Country