In light of this week’s conviction of ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor at The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity, I’m re-posting this interview from 2010 with Rebecca Richman Cohen. She is the director of the HBO documentary film WAR DON DON and a former member of a criminal defense team at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Her documentary is about the trial of a former Sierra Leonean rebel leader charged with crimes against humanity. Events in Liberia and Sierra Leone are tied; Charles Taylor was tried and convicted of crimes he committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone. More on the Taylor conviction at Democracy Now! (video).
BIO: Rebecca Richman Cohen is an award-winning filmmaker with experience in human rights. During law school she worked at the Special Court for Sierra Leone on a legal defense team for the AFRC-accused case. Later, she returned to begin production on WAR DON DON, which profiles the trial of a leader of a separate warring faction. WAR DON DON won the Special Jury Prize at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival. Rebecca was profiled in Filmmaker Magazine‘s 25 New Faces in Independent Film as an “up-and-comer posed to shape the next generation of independent film.” Rebecca graduated from Brown University and Harvard Law School. Between trips to Sierra Leone, she has been adjunct faculty at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and at American University’s Human Rights Institute.
[War Don Don premiered on HBO on Sept. 29, 2010.]
Her Film: What was the impetus behind you making WAR DON DON?
Rebecca Richman Cohen: My background is actually in law – not film. In law school I worked on a criminal defense team at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. It’s the same court profiled in the film — but I worked on the trial of a different warring faction. During that time I was exposed first hand to experience the inner-workings of the Court and I gained an intimate view of process in a way that would be difficult if I were just a journalist airdropped in to tell a specific story.
Working at the Special Court, I came to know lawyers on the prosecution and the defense of Issa Sesay’s trial. Both sides had some of the brightest and most impassioned lawyers I’ve ever met and I was fascinated by the moral, political, and legal questions that their commitments evoked. Combining my legal experience in criminal defense with my background as a filmmaker, I realized that a documentary film could capture the complexities of the issues in way that neither law review articles nor mainstream media could accurately represent.
HF: How do you define your role as a documentary filmmaker?
RRC: Being a filmmaker is more than just telling a non-fiction story. It’s also about honoring perspectives.
I treat my subjects with respect and I try to honor their perspectives – even if I disagree with them. I assume that audiences can sort through competing narratives and come to their own conclusions. One of the greatest joys of documentary filmmaking is the impassioned debate that arises from having to sort through the tensions within and between conflicting stories.
We did a great many rough cut screenings with different audiences – Sierra Leoneans and Westerners, lawyers and lay people, filmmakers, film lovers, and even a few who were generally indifferent to the art of documentary film.
I knew we were done editing when different people took away different things from the film – when the film acted like a Rorschach test of sorts. Different audiences will come to their own conclusions – and one of the greatest joys of documentary filmmaking is the debate that arises from having to sort through the tensions within and between conflicting stories. I hope audiences enjoy having some of their assumptions tested and come to examine their own reactions to controversial issues. That’s my role as a filmmaker.
HF: You showed Wayne Jordash (defense for the main accused man on trial, Issa Sesay) reflecting on the trial process and his attempts to understand the human condition and its inherent contradictions — that people aren’t just good or evil, but can often be somewhere in between. What is your perception or observation of how the Sierra Leonean people attempt to understand both sides of the issue, despite the unthinkable terror the war evoked?
RRC: It’s impossible to speak for an entire country. People’s perspectives in Sierra Leone – and throughout the world – are inevitably colored by their experiences. It’s a tall order to ask people who have suffered terrible losses in war to see both sides of the issue. The crimes perpetrated in Sierra Leone cannot be justified. But in order to address the root causes of the war – and to prevent crimes in the future – the motivations underlying the war must be understood.
The work of the Special Court is not to see both sides of the issue or to create empathy for perpetrators. The work of the Special Court is to fairly judge the guilt or innocent of individuals. Understanding the motivations of different actors in the conflict – that’s the domain of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“Being a filmmaker is… also about honoring perspectives.”
HF: Sierra Leone has experienced what is unfathomable horror for many people. What did you learn in the process of making this film about how people (try to) heal from such atrocities?
RRC: When I was a law student [at Harvard], I read a book by Dean Martha Minow, called Between Vengeance and Forgiveness [subtitled Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence] — it’s a book that deeply influenced my understanding of transitional justice. One of the points Dean Minow makes that is forgiveness or healing may just be too tall an order in the aftermath mass atrocities. A more realistic objective is peaceful coexistence.
I think criminal prosecutions are one element necessary to promote peaceful coexistence, but one of many. There’s consensus that it takes a holistic approach in order to address the root causes of the conflict: rampant corruption, lack of access to justice, a sense of hopeless and inability to effect change without resorting to violence. In order to move forward in the aftermath of war international transitional justice efforts need to work in concert with grassroots and civil society initiatives.
HF: Can you talk a bit about the crew you worked with to make this film and the conditions in Sierra Leone which surrounded your production?
RRC: We made the decision early on to shoot on high definition video to capture the vibrancy of daily life in West Africa. Our cinematographer, Nadia Hallgren, has an uncanny ability to find beauty and meaning in the seemingly mundane quotidian aspects of life. And our long production schedule allowed her sufficient time to develop the character of the city of Freetown (its vibrancy, its poverty, its movement, its soft light at sunset) – to the fullest.
Once we returned to the edit room, the film’s editor/producer, Francisco Bello, was struck by the texture of the archival footage that we were amassing. Much of the war footage was archived on badly degraded VHS tapes – to the extent that it almost appeared painterly as edges softened and colors blurred. So it was really satisfying to see the sharpness of our original HD footage contrasted against the fuzziness of the historical archives. The juxtaposition of formats made a cinematic point about the decay of historical memory, and allowed us to play with structure, content and textures accordingly.
HF: What has been the reaction to WAR DON DON in Sierra Leone?
RRC: In May 2010 I returned to Sierra Leone to launch our outreach campaign. We had a Freetown première screening with a panel discussion that included the Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, and the head of Outreach for the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The screening and panel discussion generated a great of debate and interesting discussion.
In addition to targeting civil society and government leaders, we also did a number of screenings for former combatants and Issa Sesay’s family. And we sent a DVD to Issa Sesay who is serving his sentence in Rwanda. Issa said that he “appreciated the effort” we put in to telling his story.
Currently, we are partnered with civil society organizations in Sierra Leone to continue screenings and to use the film to support their ongoing efforts with regard to promoting the rule of law and access to justice initiatives.
Visit the WAR DON DON website.
Become a fan on the WAR DON DON Facebook page.
Follow the film on twitter @wardondon.
Visit the HBO page for WAR DON DON.
See photos from the September 23 HBO screening of the film in New York City.