How does a nation cope when a civil war? How does it heal? There are way too many examples we could study to answer that question these days. War Don Don looks at one of the newer methods: holding an internationally sanctioned war crimes trial to create an official record and to punish those judged to have borne “the greatest responsibility.”
The title means “war is over” in Sierra Leone’s Krio language, but Rebecca Richman Cohen’s documentary shows how tenuous the truce is in a country where, just a few years earlier, people were enslaving, raping, and amputating body parts from their neighbors, if not killing them outright. It also looks at how hard it can be to distinguish between victim and victimizer, especially when most of the soldiers who committed the atrocities were conscripted as children and brainwashed/terrorized into becoming brutish outlaws.
War Don Don revolves around the trial of Issa Hassan Sesay, the second in command of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), in an international court that convened in Sierra Leone almost immediately after the end of the war. The RUF fomented civil war for a decade starting in 1991. Its initial aim was to free the people from corrupt one-party rule (or so it claimed), but it soon degenerated into its own nightmare version of corruption and abuse. In league with Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, the RUF became a scourge rather than a savior for the people of Sierra Leone.
The documentary’s drama doesn’t emerge from whether Sesay will be found guilty; we hear his sentence at the start of the movie and then at intervals throughout, as we watch different people react to the news. The dramatic arc is the change in our own reactions to the verdict. The first time I heard it, I felt like the amputee who says he feels vindicated every time the word “guilty” is applied to one of the perpetrators. But as Cohen knit together a 360-degree view of Sesay, it became harder for me to see his sentence as a simple triumph of justice.
First-time director Cohen trained with Michael Moore (she was an intern on Bowling for Columbine and an assistant editor on Fahrenheit 9/11), but she doesn’t seem to have absorbed any of his trademark methods. This somber doc carefully avoids editorializing, giving equal time to a wide variety of opinions and leaving it up to us to make up our own minds. Even questions about Sesay’s essential nature are left open. Is he, as one of the court’s chief prosecutors is convinced, literally soulless? Or is he the “intelligent and charming” person the lead counsel for the defense describes as “a man I’ve come to like a lot, actually.”
The real question is how much responsibility Sesay bears for the atrocities committed by RUF troops. As his lead counsel puts it: “Was it a criminal organization or was it an organization that contained a huge number of criminals?” The prosecutor is convinced that the RUF’s leaders ordered the mayhem, even reveled in it. “As the rule of law slipped down the gutter and into the drain, they did it because they could,” he says. “It was Mad Max Thunderdome. They just had fun doing it.” But Sesay’s lawyers are convinced the guerillas were too disorganized to have been controlled like an official military. They argue that Sesay had no idea about many of the things many “thugs” were doing under him, in a system of which he too was a victim.
What’s never in doubt is the nature of the crimes. Diamond-hard facts are read into the record, and evidence is written on the bodies of survivors. Cohen interviews the head of an amputee soccer league, showing us one member balancing on crutches to kick with his one remaining leg. She gathers man-on-the-street opinions about Sesay’s guilt and how best to handle it from people like a man shopping for produce with hooks and a beautiful young woman with a bandaged stub where one hand used to be. And she draws out one heartbreaking moment in the trial when a woman testifying about having been forced to laugh at a pile of severed heads breaks down when she recalls seeing her own child among the dead.
Cohen may leave things a little too open. The film barely touches on some of the issues it raises, like the cost of the international court and what else that money might have been used for, the ethics of convicting some war criminals on the testimony of others who go free, and the hidden workings of the court itself. But when it comes to the sticky question of what to do about the people who get sucked into the maws of 21st-century killing machines not as victims but as killers, War Don Don gives us plenty to chew on.
War Don Don will play on June 12, 13, and 16 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.