I have a feeling that we’ve missed something.
“Most of you can’t visit the Court, so we have the Outreach Section,” Jeremiah Salia tells an attentive gathering. “We bring the Court to you.” His audience nods as he explains the process. The Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international war crimes tribunal established in 2004, is trying members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who wreaked havoc across the countryside for a decade. RUF founder Foday Sankoh provides testimony, while his former commanders now sit in a courtroom, assailed by prosecutors, instructed by judges, and recorded for the Outreach Section.
Such recording is at the center of Rebecca Richman Cohen’s remarkable War Don Don. Taking the trial of Issa Sesay as a point of departure, the documentary—which screens 16 June at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, and again at Silverdocs in DC—brings together varying accounts of the 11-year war, which left tens of thousands dead and over two million people displaced. Justice Benjamin Itoe says the Court means “to bring an end to impunity and to contribute to the peace and reconciliation process.”
The film underlines the complexities of both this goal and process, drawn from the “system that began at Nuremberg.” Sesay’s trial occasions not only accounts of rape, torture, and murder, but also public declarations of liability and apt punishments. The film looks also at the related process of committing these accounts and legal arguments to video, the relation between performance and perception as a means to order.
Again and again, the film underscores the recording per se, with shots of the courtroom camera swiveling and TV screens scritching. Mediated and multiply framed, truth remains elusive; what remain are images and reflections, narratives that speak to current needs as much as past events. Just so, David Crane (prosecutor from 2002-2005) opens the trial by describing, “A tale of horror beyond the gothic into the realm of Dante’s Inferno… these dogs of war, these hounds of hell released.” The defense team objects, of course, and the judge suggests he tone down his language. Yet, Crane insists that his view is based on experience, specifically, his experience of looking at Sesay. In an interview with the filmmakers, Crane remembers, “The hairs on the back of my neck actually bristled. From my point of view, it was almost a religious experience.”
From Crane’s perspective, Sesay’s culpability is clear, his “evil” legible. The head of Sesay’s defense team, Wayne Jordash, sees something else. Beginning with the limits of his own vision (“One can only get to know someone in a limited way in a lawyer-client relationship when the client is incarcerated and fighting literally for his life”), Jordash describes Sesay as “intelligent, charming, at times bad tempered, at times very angry… Overall, a man I’ve come to like a lot, actually.” The story Jordash tells is based on his interviews with Sesay, a story the film helps to illustrate with its own interviews, during which Sesay sits, stands, and paces in a small room. “I’m not against the Special Court, because I know the Special Court has a job to do,” he says. Hundreds were amputated, people lost their loved ones, homes were destroyed. In that case, people must give account, in that case, people must be punished.”
Indeed, the film offers interviews with victims who confirm this view. Jabati Mambu, now president of the Amputee Football Association, appears in two shots, one showing his face and the other close on his missing hand. “The word ‘guilty’ for an indictee,” he asserts, “is always a victory.” Other images offer other views, not opposite, but layered. Snapshots of a young Sesay are contrasted with TV images of his sentencing. In halting speech, he says, “I was not born to be a criminal, but system make me to be a… as the Court look at me today, they say I am a criminal.” Here Sesay sums up the defense strategy, which is to reveal the context for his criminal acts: he is guilty of crimes, surely, especially conscripting child soldiers for the RUF. And yet he also was made an unprepared interim leader when Sankoh and other leaders were arrested, was not in full control of his men, and in the end disarmed the RUF, his own effort to achieve peace and the decision that led to his own arrest.
Here the irony of the film’s title turns acute: “war don don” translates to “the war is over.” The ongoing effects of wartime trauma mean that it can’t be over, much as the Court seeks closure and a structure of accountability. As Sesay and the lawyers enter the courtroom, the film cuts to production booth images: hands on soundboard levers, monitors showing several angles on the proceedings. Still, the view of the Court remains narrow, criminals must be found and punished, not complicated. Jordash notes, “Any process which isn’t prepared to examine itself is fundamentally flawed.” The film illustrates this perspective: as Jordash enters the prison, you see a series of close, almost abstracted, shots: narrow doors, small windows, locks and bars. “You have such an impetus towards convicting everybody before the Court,” Jordash narrates, “And that doesn’t lend itself to a truth-finding process.”
Part of that elusive truth can be glimpsed in images of people’s lives, in Sierra Leone horrifically impoverished, with 57% living on less than a dollar a day. For a long minute you watch a man pumping petrol, here a grinding, noisy, rudimentary action, his grim face turned to the camera while Jordash goes on, “If there’s no prospect of becoming a victor so that you can support your family and provide yourself with the basics, then the choice between picking up the gun or remaining in the dust… I’m not sure that should be so difficult for people to understand.”
Yet understanding is difficult. Representational processes—legal, political, and media —obfuscate even as they appear to clarify. “There were good reasons for this war,” Jordash says as the film finally cuts from the man at the pump to a montage of lawyers at work in offices, with electricity and files and desks. “That isn’t the same thing as justifying the crimes that were committed in it.”
Throughout War Don Don, subtle visual compositions like these make one thing clear. The film is not about Sesay’s guilt or even the RUF’s many atrocities. It is about processes, pursuits and perspectives of order, ever limited views, and institutional efforts to “right history” that can never be complete. It’s about how difficult it is to understand.