There were eight entries in the documentary competition at SXSW with Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol taking the top jury prize. (Jury members were Nelson George, Thom Powers, and Karina Longworth). Rebecca Richman Cohen's War Don Don was given a special jury nod. You can read rhapsodic reviews for Marwencol here, here and here. Since I've yet to see it, I'll talk about the outstanding film I did see and that's Cohen's feature début.
I first knew about this project, and heard the director speak, at Full Frame two years ago when she was one of the recipients of the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant. (That same year, Mai Iskander, director of Garbage Dreams, was also a grantee.) Cohen, a law school graduate and human rights activist, is a young, slight-framed, pretty woman with a powerful booming voice and a confident demeanor to match--a person of conviction. Partnering with Academy and Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker, Francisco Bello, her producer and editor, and directors of photography, Nadia Hallgren and William Charles Moss, ensured a high-level of proficiency in the way in which this piece was put together, a cinematic dream team, if you will. I also don't want to neglect to mention the thrilling music supplied by Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew.
The film supplies incredible visual power, is rhythmically precise in its pace and timbre, and presents the hard-won access these filmmakers had to its very best advantage for the viewer to weigh, ponder, listen and learn. Never outright didactic, and, thankfully not narrated by the filmmaker or anyone else, it has a lot of nuanced and, downright contradictory, information to impart. War Don Don ("the war is over" in Krio) is one of the most intelligent, balanced, thoughtful films I've seen in a while. It is a superb piece of work on every level.
In Freetown, Sierra Leone, an auspicious "special court" convenes, there to try a man named Issa Sesay, accused war criminal, brought to trial by the prosecution for crimes against humanity during the country's devastating civil war. The population was decimated, many survivors left without limbs due to rampant amputation by the young soldiers. Sesay's defense team deems him a good soldier (in fact, a coerced one), who protected civilians and was one of the leaders who helped to bring a hard-won peace to the nation. This was the world's first international war crimes "hybrid tribunal," created jointly by the UN and the government of Sierra Leone. The spine of the film is the trial itself which offers quite complex questions as to how this man's life and actions are to be interpreted.
As Cohen states, "From my seat in the gallery of the RUF-accused trial, I first observed Issay Sesay, a former rebel leader accused of crimes against humanity and a key player in the peace negotiations--and I was fascinated by the range of roles that one man could assume amidst the intensity of such a brutal conflict." What the filmmakers also do is move from this rarefied place into the streets and small villages of Sierra Leone where the trial can be seen by any private citizen that wants to watch it, with an on-the-ground team on hand to explain the proceedings, i.e., what it all means for the people who have lost so much. As well, all of the participants--prosecution, defense, the citizens--get to weigh in on how effective the legal system that is trying this one man "for the crimes of many" happens to be--or not to be. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to stage such a trial, perhaps at the expense of people who are still lacking basic necessities, clean water, enough food, a solid roof over their heads, good medical care, still living in a place where the basic infrastructure is in more of a shambles than ever. This is highly-nuanced, thought-provoking filmmaking, providing profound sustenance for both the mind, the conscience and the heart.
The film plays next at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival London, then moves to the Amnesty International Movies That Matter Festival at The Hague, Netherlands. And, then, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina--coming full circle to the place where Cohen first presented it two years ago.
Next up: NY Export: Opus Jazz, the The DeVilles, and my favorite doc shorts from SXSW.