Fambul Tok: The Movie

My last post on  Sierre Leone’s NGO Fambul Tok was based on my viewing several weeks ago of the 2011 film of the same name, directed by Sara Terry and co-produced by Libby Hoffman, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in questions of crime, punishment, and justice.  In brief, it concerns the NGO’s work in Sierra Leone’s communities with reconciling victims and perpetrators of the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1991-2002. It begins at a bonfire in a small village with a rape victim confronting and eventually forgiving the rapist, her uncle. In another village, former best friends are reconciled; one, as an impressed child soldier for the rebels, had killed the other’s father. A sister of a notorious rebel leader, who remains missing, begs and receives forgiveness on her brother’s behalf from the cousins and neighbors whose families he had brutalized by torture, rape and murder.

As the film explains through its central spokesperson John Caulker, Fambul Tok was developed as an alternative to the post-war commissions that had, until the film was released, prosecuted only a handful of war criminals, none of them of top rank. The cost to the nation of that nearly decade-long Western-style process was in the tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Fambul Tok’s brand of justice had cost about $US 1 million  since it was founded in 2007 until the film’s release last year and had reconciled hundreds of former antagonists.

What the film doesn’t make clear enough, in my opinion (just in the interest of honesty–the film gives the slight misimpression that it is objectively reporting on a purely Sierra Leonean phenomenon), is that the organization Fambul Tok was actually founded by the film’s producer Libby Hoffman, a Fletcher School of International Relations-trained academic and peace activist from Portland, Maine. Hoffman had brought journalist Terry to Sierra Leone to make a film about the subject that interested them both from their different perspectives: reparation of civil war-torn societies. (Terry had previously worked as a photojournalist in post-war Bosnia.) During the process of researching the film, Hoffman met John Caulker, who was working for another NGO, and was intrigued by his thoughts about the Freetown-based official reconciliation process, which he believed was failing to address the social rifts seething all over the countryside. His ideas, based on long-standing traditions in Sierra Leone’s villages, about how to heal those rifts jibed with Hoffman’s own evolving ideas on peace-making. Thus, the organization and the film arose nearly hand in hand.

So, yes, it really is a Sierra Leonean idea rooted in the country’s social culture; understandably, perhaps, the filmmakers did not want to distract from that by highlighting the influencing hand of a white American.  In any case, the film’s supplementary material on the DVD version (as well as on its website) makes Hoffman’s relationship to the NGO clear. (I highly recommend the supplementary videos on the DVD, by the way, one on Fambul Tok as practiced by a class of Philadelphia middle schoolers, and one about the attempt of a brutal commander named Savage to reconcile with the many dozens of neighbors he terrorized during the war.) And it certainly doesn’t detract from the extraordinary idea at the center of the film, which is being tested, apparently with great success (so far) in the laboratory of post-war Sierra Leone, that justice is not complete if the rifts caused by a crime are not somehow healed.

Can a community wounded by crime fully heal simply by caging or killing its convicted criminals? Most Americans would probably say, yes–maybe not fully, but fully enough. But Fambul Tok is worth taking a look at to consider that a greater, more satisfying healing might be possible.


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