From 1991 to 2002, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) waged a brutal civil war against the government of Sierra Leone. Defining themselves as rebels who sought to overthrow an oppressive government, they have been responsible for some of the most horrific acts of torture and terror to plague the African continent, on par with the genocidal lunacy that took place in Rwanda and Uganda. Thousands of murders, rapes of women and children, forced prostitution, genital mutilations, the amputation of arms and legs, conscription of children into the army, some as young as seven years old — all are attributed to the RUF. It represents some of the worst crimes against humanity in history.
Rebecca Richman-Cohen’s documentary War Don Don (Krio for “The War is Over”) follows the trial of Issa Sesay, second-in-command to RUF leader Foday Sankoh. The film deals with both the prosecution and the defense cases for Sesay, standing trial before a special tribunal of United Nations and Sierra Leone government officials, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sesay represents an unusual case, for while the men under his command committed some truly hideous atrocities, he is also responsible for the RUF laying down their arms and surrendering. His defense makes the case that Sesay was a voice of moderation within the RUF, that the crimes committed happened without his knowledge and that he is being essentially railroaded by a group looking to blame someone, anyone, for the tragedies of Sierra Leone.
War Don Don is my favorite kind of documentary — there is no narration, and the film makers never appear on screen, removing the sort of self-serving, agenda-ridden stylings of Moore and Spurlock. Despite the difficult subject matter, it truly does manage to be a completely impartial examination of Sesay and the RUF’s history, as well as of the trial itself. Comprised of footage from the trials, archived news footage, citizen and survivor reactions and testimonies (many with artificial limbs), it paints a fully-realized picture not just of the trial, but also of the populace and their perceptions of it. With extensive interviews and accounts from both the defense and prosecution teams, it allows the viewer to make their own judgments and gives a deep understanding of the complexities of both the country’s political climate as well as the trial process. Most interesting are the interviews with Sesay himself, as well as with other ex-members of the RUF, all of whom are never the monstrous ogres one expects, but rather calm, collected figures who are either unwilling or unknowing participants in the tragedies, or cleverly disguised sociopaths. That is ultimately what the audience is left to decide.
It’s a dense, interesting film that sadly is getting as little attention as the atrocities themselves did. However, it’s absolutely worth seeing, a detached, intelligently handled and impartial account that somehow still manages to convey a sense of intimacy and even sympathy for all the involved parties. Films like War Don Don are critically important to exposing the savagery in our world, as well as the importance of finding out the truths behind both sides of every conflict.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.