War Don Don

War Don Don

Issa Sesay in detention; from the film WAR DON DON, a film directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen.

War Don Don

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War Don Don (2010)

Opened: 07/09/2010 Limited

Laemmle's Fall...07/09/2010 - 07/15/20107 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Twitter, Facebook

Genre: Documentary

Rated: Unrated

Short Synopsis

In the heart of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, United Nations soldiers guard a heavily fortified building known as the "special court." Inside, Issa Sesay awaits his trial.

Prosecutors say Sesay is a war criminal, guilty of crimes against humanity. His defenders say he is a reluctant fighter who protected civilians and played a crucial role in bringing peace to the country.

WAR DON DON tells the story of a sensational trial with unprecedented access to prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims and, from behind bars, Sesay himself.

In Krio, war don don means "the war is over," and although today Sierra Leone is at peace, the specter of war remains ever-present. Can the trial of one man uncover the truth of a traumatic past? International justice is on trial for the world to see.

Long Synopsis

In the 1990s, shocking images from the West African nation of Sierra Leone overwhelmed the world's sensibilities. Reports documented a vicious civil war: widespread murder, mutilation, rape, and child soldiers killing and dying -- as RUF rebels, their allies, and opponents waged war.

Our story begins in 2004 in a West African courthouse -- a modern structure heavily guarded by United Nations troops in downtown Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The ten-year civil war is finally over and the streets feel calm. "When they announced 'war don don' I felt as happy as a baby in mom's belly," says a man on a motorcycle. But just as the dust begins to settle, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international war crimes tribunal, is digging up the past. Here, surrounded by tanks, barbed wire, and satellite dishes, one man sits accused of crimes against humanity. His name is Issa Sesay.

A rebel commander who emerged from the jungle waving a white flag, Sesay now stands before the Special Court for Sierra Leone accused of the most heinous crimes in the world.

David Crane, the chief prosecutor from the United States, argues that Sesay turned this onceidyllic country into Dante's inferno. Crane paints a picture of Sesay as hyperbolic evil: "It's the first time that I looked into the eyes of a human being and realized they have no soul. The hairs on the back of my neck actually bristled." Crane's indictment is built on witness testimonies about crimes that implicate Sesay as a high-ranking rebel commander.

Meanwhile, Sesay's defense team, led by a young British barrister named Wayne Jordash, work to discredit the prosecution's story. Sesay's defense is one of circumstance: he was a moderate in a brutal civil war who actively protected civilians, not a criminal mastermind responsible for carnage. We even hear about Sesay's role in establishing health care for poor Sierra Leoneans. And Jordash raises serious concerns about prosecution witnesses' incentives for distorting the past. But how should this information be balanced against the accusations of horrible misdeeds?

Weaving between past and present, between the war and the trial, an ambiguous, even contradictory picture of a man emerges. Who should we believe? As the lawyers attempt to reconstruct Sesay's role in the civil war, we measure their claims against the facts of the war itself -- finding that in some cases the past is not just painful, it is also opaque.

When the Court sends outreach teams around the country to publicize Sesay's trial, we learn that Sierra Leoneans are just as divided as the prosecution and defense. We hear from an amputee who believes that Sesay's prosecution affirms her rights as a victim. We meet a former government official who insists Sesay's prosecution will serve as a deterrent to future atrocities— a vaccination, in a sense, against the madness and mayhem of war. And we also hear from those who think the entire enterprise is too backward looking, that it cannot salve the wounds of a civil war, and that it reduces the complexity of a complicated conflict by unjustly holding a few individuals to account for the crimes of many.

Throughout the film, we've heard competing testimony about Issa Sesay, about the relevance of the Special Court, and about the nature of the civil war. Both sides have exhaustively investigated the past to piece together a narrative of the conflict -- but the picture remains obscured, the many portraits of Issa Sesay shrouded in conflict. What, other than Sesay's fate, will be determined by the final judgment?

Taken separately, the many stories of Sesay's trial reveal the unique nature of public reckoning in the aftermath of war; taken together, they reveal the complex relationship between individual accountability and collective reconciliation.