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War Don Don
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by Jay Seaver

"Post-war done well."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2010: "War Don Don" was what they shouted about ten years ago in Sierra Leone to announce that a vicious civil war (one barely reported abroad) was over. The end of a war, however, is seldom accompanied by an outpouring of magnanimity by the victors. Someone is going to pay for all the blood spilled, and whether that blame and punishment is meted out fairly is very difficult to determine, even when a great deal of effort is being made to do it right.

In Sierra Leone's case, the first person in line was Issa Sesay, a battlefield commander of the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF waged a bloody campaign against the government for roughly a decade, and their list of crimes is all-too-familiar for those familiar with recent African history: rape, murder, use of child soldiers, cutting off the limbs of civilians. The RUF's primary leader was Foday Sankoh; Sesay's brief command was marked by surrendering and dismantling the group. Since Sankoh died in prison, Sesay was the highest-ranked RUF leader to be tried for war crimes in the new courthouse built in the capital of Freetown at great expense.

Chief Prosecutor David Crane describes Sesay by recounting how he looked into the accused's eyes and saw a man with no soul; his defense attorney Wayne Jordash finds him personable and intelligent. But Rebecca Richman Cohen's documentary is only tangentially about Issa Sesay; it is, rather, about the process of prosecuting war crimes. It is, according to the defense, an unfair process, concerned more with politics than actual guilt and innocence: The (primarily) American and British donors who spent hundreds of millions of dollars on building the court did not do so to see acquittals, and it is very much in the country's interest to project stability by convicting the leadership. The prosecution also has much more funding, and can take extraordinary measures to protect its witnesses' anonymity.

Cohen's access initially came via the defense team, and one might suspect that even without the Q&A at the festival - we primarily meet the prosecution via very controlled interviews with the men on top, but we see numerous scenes of the defense team discussing strategy; they also talk with Francis Musa, a former RUF soldier working with the defense as a special investigator. Sesay himself is briefly interviewed. However, it never feels as though the presentation is particularly slanted; even with the comments about how he appears to be set up as a scapegoat, Cohen and editor Francisco Bello don't shy away from choosing shots of him in the courtroom that came across as unnerving to this viewer.

Cohen and company do a nice job of using the trial both as a way to examine the concept of international courts, the civil war that led to the formation of this one, and the current state of Sierra Leone. We see an outreach program bringing tapes of the trial to the countryside, attempting to help the people there (a disconcerting amount of whom are missing limbs) understand why a trial is even necessary; we hear discussions of how the money spent on a war-crimes court could perhaps be much better used to get the country's economy on its feet.

There is a lot to learn about Sierra Leone's civil war and its aftermath, and everything a person might want to know about the subject won't fit into a tight hour and a half. "War Don Don" provides a fine overview, though, covering many facets and giving its audience plenty to think about.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20272&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/01/10 21:20:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival For more in the 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/12/10 FRANK BELLO GREAT GREAT GREAT 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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Directed by
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