In 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began a bloody insurgency against the government of Sierra Leone. The resulting conflict lasted 11 years and caused more than a third of the population to flee; thousands more were killed by guerillas or had limbs forcefully amputated by machete. In the wake of the crisis, the U.N. and the re-instated Sierra Leonean government took an unprecedented measure, creating a “Special Court” to seek justice against war criminals in a tribunal that combined international and state law. As a third year law student at Harvard, Rebecca Richman Cohen went to the Special Court on a fellowship to work for the defense. When she returned to the country several years later, she brought a film crew.
The documentary that resulted from Cohen’s three year stay is “War Don Don,” screening next week at the Ambulante Film Festival in Mexico, following a short run in New York last fall. Her film traces the trial of RUF leader Issa Sesay, a man directly responsible for many of the war’s worst atrocities, who also protected many civilians from the clashing forces. Wayne Jordash, Issay’s lead defense lawyer, admits at one point that in other circumstances, he would have been friends with Issay. For Cohen, this is part of the central point: War criminals, if not for the war, might not be criminals.
“This doesn’t absolve people of personal guilt,” Cohen explained. “They made bad decisions in bad circumstances and they should be punished for them. If we don’t understand the coercive nature of war, then we run the risk of obscuring the root causes.”
Prosecuting a handful of generals doesn’t address the widespread damage committed during the war, nor can it be expected to, Cohen argued. “Our expectations for criminal tribunals are just too high. We ask them to do things that they can’t do. When we start making claims about their deterrent effect or their healing effect we’re setting them up to fail because they can’t possibly deliver on that.” “War Don Don” takes a critical look at the criminal tribunal, beginning with Issay’s conviction and ending with his sentencing.
One of the most striking parts of the film is the rejection of a set historical narrative. Cohen includes both the horrific war stories of some of Issay’s victims and the pleas of Sierra Leoneans who would prefer to forgive and forget. It’s a commentary on how current history ossifies before the truth can be totally absorbed, and an analysis of that process. “In documentary filmmaking you find flukes that work. Some of the footage we used from the war was really degraded; it was shot by the rebels and transferred from VHS tape to VHS tape until it looked like a watercolor. I brought it to my editor thinking it was unusable and he said, ‘This is beautiful. If this is about the deterioration of a historical narrative, how could you illustrate it better?”
After completing the film, Cohen traveled back to Sierra Leone to screen it for the members of the prosecution and the defense. The response was overwhelmingly positive. She even got a phone call from Issay himself, who had received a copy of the film in his jail cell. “’We screened it for Sisay’s family, and later I got a call from him. He just said ‘It was nice.’”
Watch the trailer for ‘War Don Don’: