“War Don Don” probes reality of international justice


Still from “War Don Don”

Filmmaker and Harvard Law School graduate Rebecca Richman Cohen ‘07 first observed Issa Sesay in 2006, through the bullet proof glass of the gallery at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. While assigned to a different defence team for her 2L summer, Cohen felt drawn to the trial of the former Interim Leader of the Revolutionary United Front, the rebel army that had waged and lost a decade-long civil war against the government of Sierra Leone.

Four years later, as the Court concludes its cases, the first major war crimes tribunal to do so since the Trials at Nuremberg over sixty years ago, Cohen presents “War Don Don”, the jarring product of her legal education and three years of filmmaking. In Krio, the lingua franca of Sierra Leone, “war don don” means “the war is over”, and Cohen’s film offers an insider’s nuanced examination of the role played by international criminal justice once hostilities have formally ceased.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the South by Southwest Festival, “War Don Don” forces its audience to challenge preconceived notions of righteousness, justice and retribution. Even the seemingly secure concept of truth is quickly muddied, creating the most satisfying intellectual and emotional discomfort.

“War Don Don” opens with the Special Court itself, a fortified structure surrounded by the ubiquitous blue-helmeted United Nations guards. With every act, the film shifts its focus, never allowing the viewer to simply take a passive role. Harrowing images war’s casualties, including the dead, the maimed and the child soldier, as well as graphic victim testimony and the vehemence of Chief Prosecutor David Crane make Sesay’s guilt a seemingly foregone conclusion.

For Crane, only the Devil himself could have created Sesay and his co-defendants. “These dogs of war, these hounds from hell…These were the leaders, the commanders of an army of evil, a corps of destroyers and a brigade of executioners bent on the criminal takeover of Sierra Leone, once the Athens of West Africa,” he says “Today, due to these indictees, a sodden backwater, marred and broken, lapping against the shores of civilization.”

But, just as the most dovish of viewer considers tying the noose herself, Cohen opens the backstage door to the justice system at play, and all such assumptions begin to splinter.

Despite representing a man described by Crane as soulless, the Sesay team managed to avoid caricaturing itself with criminal defence stereotypes. Instead, Lead Defence Council Wayne Jordash and Co-Counsel Sareta Ashraph humanize Sesay, re-introducing him as a relatively moderate soldier, trapped first by horrific circumstance, and then by the inappropriate application of strict conceptions regarding military structure and command responsibility.

Perhaps Sesay himself throws the most eloquent wrench into any simplistic notions international criminal justice. “Just because I’m an RUF commander, that’s what I’m convicted for,” he says. “If I was to be judged as an individual, I think they would not convict me on many things.”

This lack of consensus regarding Sesay, specifically, and justice, generally, is not confined to the Court. Cohen’s crew follows the Court’s Outreach Team as it meets the with communities throughout Sierra Leone, speaking to many who lack basic necessitates such as water, shelter and food, about the Court’s mandate to provide truth, not aid. The millions of dollars expended to fund the Court locate these words somewhere between ironic and cruel.

The film’s aesthetic, simultaneously stunning and disturbing, matches the tenor of the issues at hand. Refraining from voiceover and allowing the war, the court and Sierra Leone itself to serve as much of the soundtrack, Cohen deftly removes herself from the film. Instead, she elegantly allows the violence, the individuals involved, and, in the end, the lingering questions to haunt the viewer.

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