If you’re in New York this week, or DC next week, I highly recommend checking out War Don Don, a new documentary about former RUF leader Issa Sesay’s trial in the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Director Rebecca Richman Cohen has a J.D. from Harvard law school, and she puts her legal knowledge to good use in this film. Rather than pushing a particular narrative, or view of the international justice system, War Don Don allows the individuals at the heart of the trial to speak for themselves. This leads to some unintentionally funny results at times – at one point prosecutor David Crane (who has since further distinguished himself by becoming an advisor to that ridiculous “to catch a war criminal” show) looks into the camera and says, in an ominous tone, that Sesay’s trial was “the first time I looked into the eyes of a human being and realized that he had no soul.” By contrast, defense attorney Wayne Jordash is prone to wistful sighs about how nice a guy Sesay is, and how he wishes that he weren’t in prison so that they could hang out more.
Amidst the amusing soundbites, however, War Don Don manages to highlight some serious issues with the way the tribunal has administered justice. For instance, although both sides offered payments to witnesses to cover the costs associated with their testimony, the prosecution was able to pay far more than the defense, as well as to offer perks like resettlement in a wealthy country. More troubling still, Sesay receives little credit for his efforts at resolving the war: he was the RUF commander who presided over the disarmament process, a task which he undertook over the objections of much of the RUF’s senior leadership. In a statement delivered to the court during the sentencing phase of his trial, Sesay pointed out that rebels who had refused to disarm were being courted by the UN, while he – who had actively participated in the peace process years earlier – was now in the dock.
To the film’s credit, it doesn’t feel forced to answer the questions it raises. War Don Don is a way to start a broader conversation about international justice, not to end one.
In sum: go, and take your interns with you! War Don Don is showing today at 2 PM and Wednesday the 16th at 4 PM here in New York, as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, and then on June 22nd and 26th in Silver Spring, as part of the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival.