In an unusual tactic for a war documentary, the first minutes of “War Don Don” mix shocking archival footage and interviews with attractive courtroom photography and colorful scenes of Sierra Leone playing over an upbeat music track. Though it would be going too far to suggest that director Rebecca Richman Cohen HLS ’07 aestheticizes tragedy, one thing is immediately clear: CSPAN this is not.
“War Don Don” covers the trial of Issa Sesay, the commander of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone’s civil war, which ended in 2002. Sesay was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the United Nations’ Special Court for Sierra Leone. The film presents the arguments made by the prosecution and defense, along with background about the civil war—which claimed 75,000 lives—and how the people of Sierra Leone continue to cope with the trauma and material damage to their country.
Although the film was made for HBO2, where it will air on September 29, Cohen intends it for African viewers as well, and has organized screenings in Freetown and other parts of West Africa. “It was important to us to reach out to both audiences,” Cohen explains. “[In Freetown,] I was taken aback by people’s reactions. There was a lot of laughter throughout the film.”
One such moment occurred when an investigator from Sierra Leone explains in an interview that the money being spent on the courts will go back to the developed countries that are funding them. “There were a lot of moments I thought were funny or ironic in ways that a Western audience wouldn’t understand,” she added.
Although the film gives equal time to the arguments of Sesay’s prosecution and defense, the attorneys for the latter tended to focus on the proceedings themselves in interviews. Before Cohen made “War Don Don,” she worked as a legal intern on the defense team of Alex Tamba Brima, one of Sesay’s fellow commanders.
Expressing sympathy for the defense’s arguments, she says, “I certainly agree that the practice could be made better. I think the prosecution might say that as well. I think both prosecution and defense think that holding leaders accountable for their crimes is really important. The question is the way in which we do it, and the way we might be able to improve it. I don’t believe anyone thinks this is a perfect process.”
However, Cohen says that the film is meant to help audiences understand the civil war and the trial and come to their own conclusions. “I don’t think there’s one takeaway,” she says. “The intention was to present different sides in a balanced way, as they would want to be represented. The purpose was to promote debate. Issa’s family screened the film, and he said it was very nice and he congratulated me on the effort. We made a film that both a convicted war criminal thought was accurate and important, and people on the prosecution have come out to support it and speak on our panels.”
Although law school may seem like an unconventional path to professional filmmaking, Cohen believes that it gives her a unique perspective on the medium and her subject matter. She had pursued film before attending Harvard, including working as an assistant editor on Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” At the law school, she worked to get hands-on experience that would be conducive to filmmaking. “I went out into the world looking for experience, rather than doing film specifically,” she reflects on her early career.
Yet Cohen finds that documentary was the most appropriate medium to record the Sesay trial. “Law review articles, magazines, and news reports are all important,” she says, “but documentaries tell stories and can engage much broader audiences. All too frequently, people write off what’s happening in Africa as something very foreign and distant to us, and look at people who have participated in wars as being subhuman or demonic or something very different from what we know. But when you look closely, people look very human, and when you introduce that as a story in which people can understand the motivations, you have a chance at engaging people and addressing the root causes of why terrible crimes happen.”
—Staff writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at email@example.com.