Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010

'War Don Don'

by Chris Barsanti

8 June 2010

It was one thing to end Sierra Leone's civil war. What to do with the butchers who promulgated it was something else entirely.

During the 1990s, a civil war of the kind that has been sadly common in modern Africa shredded the social fabric of the small coastal country of Sierra Leone. One of the more egregiously monstrous groups that fought was the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), whose list of crimes included but were not limited to shanghaiing of child soldiers, and mass rapes and mutilations on a scale that staggers the imagination. In Rebecca Richman Cohen’s film—whose title means “the war is over”—the RUF’s heart of darkness is put under a spotlight but reflects back only a void.
Unlike in some African countries that have been scourged by widescale atrocities, such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone did not go the route of reconciliation committees. Instead, the United Nations helped set up a special war crimes court in a brand-new, highly-fortified, modern building in Freetown. There, Cohen filmed the trial of RUF second-in-command Issa Hassan Sesay. She interviews both the prosecutors who have accused Sesay of responsibility for much of the unbelievable butcheries the RUF was accused of (including shots of amputated victims hobbling on the street, a man whose hands are replaced with hooks) and his defense team. While the film makes a decent effort at giving the defense a chance to make their case, the arguments (Sesay was just one of many, he was only a soldier and not responsible for what his men did, there is little physical evidence of his crimes) don’t hold much water in the end.

This is a shame, because while War Don Don is an expressively-shot and often harrowing piece of filmmaking—the courtroom scenes where the disembodied voices of witnesses with protected identities recite their horrific suffering are especially hard to handle—it isn’t able to delve into the deeper issue of war crimes trials and their legality and purpose. Then again, Sesay’s inability to muster much of a defense speaks volumes about the weight of evil that his soldiers unleashed upon the nation.

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