“War Don Don” Examines International Justice

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War Don Don is one of the most thought-provoking documentaries you will see this year. It tells the story of the trial of accused war criminal, Issa Sesay, a leader of the rebel army in Sierra Leone during the country’s brutal civil war. The rebels not only abducted and trained children to become killers, but also used mass amputations, rape, murder and abductions in their campaign to take over the country.  Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine how Sesay could be a sympathetic character—the fact that he does is not the only surprising thing about this movie, which packs more information in 90 minutes than just about any other film like it.

The film takes you inside the expensive and time-consuming process of international justice. In this case, the international war crimes tribunal sets up a special court in Freetown, and spends more than $200 million on the trials of ten men, who are considered to be the most culpable for the atrocities. The first half of the movie builds the case for justice, by letting you absorb the bone-chilling accounts of the war by the victim’s themselves and taking you along as Chief Prosecutor David Crane travels the country building public relations for the tribunal. It’s amazing to see hundreds of villagers crowded around small television sets watching the trial, completely engaged and hungry for justice.

But after the filmmakers have you ready to see heads roll, they slowly unpeel the court’s process, leaving you ultimately unsure of Sesay’s guilt, and whether an individual could ever get a fair trial in an international court.  In Sesay’s trial, many of the key witnesses are themselves war criminals, but thanks to their cooperation are being paid handsome salaries to testify. This creates a huge incentive for the witnesses to lie in order to implicate the defendants, but any attempt by the defense to point this out is brushed aside by the judges. It becomes clear that the court has incredible incentive to convict, and the prosecutors take to their role with such eagerness that they paint defendants out to be monsters—the chief prosecutor offers that Sesay “has no soul.” But, at the same time, we see how this effort to cast blame has it’s own rewards. Through interviews with Sierra Leoneans, we understand how these trials can help a country move towards peace.

But in this context, can an individual get a fair trial? Probably not. The defense argues that Sesay himself was a moderate among the rebels, and actually had a role in protecting individuals. They say that he was far away from where atrocities were happening, and due to the guerilla nature of the war probably had limited knowledge of what was happening and no way to stop it if he did. Sesay eventually takes control of the rebel army and offers unconditional surrender. In effect, he was the man who brought peace to the country, even if he had a hand in war. The filmmakers interview Sesay himself in jail, but he remains an elusive figure. The court, unsurprisingly, finds him guilty of the most heinous crimes (rape, child soldiers, attacking peacekeepers, etc.).

In the end, the film raises more questions than it answers, which is mostly to it’s benefit. (Most docs feel too long at 90 minutes. This one felt too short.) The film spends so much time examining international justice, that I ultimately felt like I didn’t fully get to know Sesay. Was he an idealist or an opportunist? What did he know about the atrocities and when? Who exactly did mastermind the scorched earth policy? Does he feel any guilt for his role? These questions will have to wait for the director’s cut.

War Don Don plays tonight, Sunday March 14, at 7:15pm at the Alamo South Lamar. The final showing is March 20 at 1:45 at the Alamo Ritz.

Michael May is a former Observer managing editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.