War Don Don [Full Frame 2010]

in focusing on the war crimes trial of Issa Sesay, one of the leaders of the Sierra Leone rebel forces, Rebecca Richman Cohen’s War Don Don asks a difficult and thought-provoking question: what role do war crimes trials serve? Do they offer the “justice” that citizens and survivors of the war want? Do they provide us with unambiguous answers about culpability or agency?  What happens when the enormous expense of the trials is measured against a country’s extreme poverty and need to rebuild after a brutal civil war.  To Cohen’s great credit, War Don Don (which translates to “war is over”) never offers simple answers, making the film one of the most thought-provoking documentaries I saw at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

The film focuses on the war crimes trial of Issa Sesay, which lasted over five years and cost millions of dollars to conduct.  Sesay was the second in command of the RUF, under Fuday Sankoh, who is described by at least one observer as apuppet of Liberian President Charles Taylor.  The war itself is characterized by its extreme brutality.  RUF soldiers raped women, or “bush wives,” as they are euphemistically called, and took on underaged soldiers. But soon after Sesay took command from Sankoh, he quickly and unilaterally disarmed, bringing an end to the conflict, as his defense attorneys, led by Wayne Jordash, are quick to point out.  Prosecutors, including David Crane, complicate this defense by comparing the conditions in Sierra Leone to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and describing initiatives such as “Operation No Living Thing.”

Residents of Sierra Leone themselves seem ambivalent about the war crimes trial.  Many are unconcerned about whether Sesay is tried for his crimes.  Others point out that both sides used brutal techniques and add that the money invested in trying Sesay could be spent on rebuilding the country.  These questions are especially pertinent when we consider whether the trials are meant to arrive at the “truth” of what happened in Sierra Leone or whether they serve some greater purpose, such as national healing or legal justice.  Many, including Eldred Collins, question the reductive narrative about the RUF itself and see the rebellion as symptomatic of the nation’s problems with poverty and inequality, while adding that it’s unclear how much control Sesay might have had over individual soldiers.

Shot primarily in a talking-heads style, but supplemented with courtroom and news footage, War Don Don moves at a brisk pace while allowing the complexity of the issues at stake to unfold carefully.  It is an intelligent and engaging film that forces us to ask what happens after a war when a people tries to make sense of a national trauma.

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