Rebecca Richman Cohen’s debut War Don Don (winner of the Special Jury prize at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival) follows the trial of Sierra Leonian war criminal Issa Sesay. Embracing the complexities of the conflict there and examining how “law and order” might survive, this film portrays the process of seeking justice by blaming a few bad actors for catastrophic destruction as highly artificial.
During his trial, Sesay’s defense attorneys tackle the politically dicey task of differentiating the unpleasantness of what transpired in Sierra Leon from the unpleasantness of what happened in other civil wars. Sesay was the head of the RUF, a paramilitary group conscripted by neighboring Liberia’s president Charles Taylor to enslave hundreds of thousands of people, force them to mine natural resources which netted huge profits. The legal team attempts to render what happened in Sierra Leon as a rare civil war, based not on a religious, ethnic or geographic conflict. Instead, it gets cast as nearly entirely profit-motivated, implicating far more than just one genocidal despot.
From 1967 to 1985, Siaka Stevens was the prime minister and president of Sierra Leone, overseeing a period of political repression and massive poverty. Children who grew up watching parents struggle and younger siblings starve to death were low-hanging fruit for Taylor, who promised them a road to heroism by taking up arms and becoming freedom fighters against an obvious and external enemy. These armies, armed to the teeth and managed by angry teenage boys, splintered into their own agendas, loyalties and unchecked aggression. This led to the murder, maiming and displacement of hundreds of thousands Sierra Leonians. When UN peacekeepers eventually intervened, they disarmed and arrested Sesay.
Similar to Rob O'Reilly’s and John Murphy’s The Trial, which focuses on the trial for Kosovo’s former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, we see the difference between a rebel leader and a war criminal comes down to a lot of different variables. None of which are determined by who was left standing at the end of the conflict. In these instances, history isn’t written by ‘the winners.’ Instead, it gets recorded by the special courts funded by the British and United States governments, who funnel millions of dollars into war torn regions to complete what most people believe is a largely symbolic notion of justice.The idea is briefly floated that the amount of money it took to build a special courthouse, as well as set up investigative, prosecutorial and security teams for the five year trial, may have been better spent on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. Thousands of survivors require physical rehabilitation in a country with very little non-slave economy to speak of. To her credit, Cohen understands these things are a lot more complicated than checking either to War Tribunal or Social Services box.
War Don Don toggles between court footage and interviews with attorneys for both teams, historians, survivors and one of Sesay’s mentors (now a well-funded witness for the prosecution). Interestingly, this happens without the guiding hand of narration, musical cues, infographics or personal intervention by the filmmaker. Cohen has previously collaborated as an editor with Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine), therefore, it’s noteworthy that for her own project she takes the tonally and structurally opposite approach to non-fiction storytelling.
War Don Don airs September 29th on HBO.