SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 11, 2010
Director: Rebecca Richman Cohen
The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under Foday Sankoh started The Sierra Leone Civil War in 1991. During the 11-year conflict, tens of thousands died and more than 2 million people (well over one-third of the population) were displaced. The civil war was officially declared over in January 2002.
The title of this documentary – “war don don” – translates to “the war is over.” And, as you might guess, I had no choice but to review this documentary because of its name alone – apparently it was destiny.
In 2004, the Special Court for Sierra Leone – an international war crimes tribunal – began its trial of Issa Sesay, who was deemed the Interim Leader of the RUF after Sankoh was jailed. The chief prosecutors, David Crane (2002 – 2005) and Stephen Rapp (2006 – 2009), built their case on the concept that Sesay was a high-ranking rebel commander and should be held directly responsible for the atrocities committed by the RUF. The defense team, lead by Wayne Jordash, claims that: the prosecution’s witnesses were given incentives for distorting their perspectives on the past; Sesay was a merely a battlefield commander; Sesay actively protected civilians, even established free health care for the civilians; and the RUF was not a conventional army and there was no communication between various regions – Sesay did not know of the horrors (amputations, rapes, murders, burning of homes) that were being committed by other RUF factions a hundred miles away.
Both sides seem to agree that reconciliation and peace in Sierra Leone is of the utmost priority, but the prosecution and defense differ in the most appropriate way to maintain peace in Sierra Leone. Will sentencing RUF commanders make Sierra Leone a safer and better place? Could the money being used to fund the Special Court be of more use to the people of Sierra Leone? (For example: Sierra Leone is the third-lowest-ranked country on the Human Development Index and seventh-lowest on the Human Poverty Index, suffering from endemic corruption and suppression of the press.)
Director Rebecca Richman Cohen’s documentary War Don Don takes a comprehensive and critical look into the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the Special Court’s flaws appear to be inherent in the international war crimes tribunal system. How can someone be found guilty for someone else’s acts? Are military commanders guiltier than their soldiers merely because of their rank? What if there is indisputable proof that leaders or military commanders specifically commanded their soldiers to commit heinous acts? What if the soldiers were forced by their commanders to commit heinous acts? (War Don Don attempts to prove that it is highly disputable that Sesay ordered the crimes that he was found guilty of committing.)
War Don Don effectively covers the trial of Sesay and reveals a perspective on the situation in Sierra Leone that I would guess very few people in the United States are aware of. During the time of the RUF’s control of Sierra Leone, the Western world was only privy to one perspective by the media – the RUF was evil and Sankoh, Sesay and other leaders were guilty. Only knowing that one perspective for so long, watching a documentary that seeks to prove Sesay’s naïveté (if not innocence) seems almost anti-American. But trust me, it is not. Similar to Presumed Guilty (a documentary about horrors of the Mexican judicial system), War Don Don is about the American value of justice which requires the proof of guilt rather than the assumption of guilt.