A fire rises up from the ground; its flames create a flickering light in the darkness. People sit around the pyre, almost completely consumed in shadow. We are witnessing a trial of sorts, but unlike any trial you would see in the Western world. Commanding the floor is a woman who speaks of how she was raped by fifteen men, one of whom was her uncle. She calls for the man to make himself known, and straight away the perpetrator appears, full of sorrow, begging for forgiveness. She does forgive him, and the two reconcile through dancing by the fire. Even though they have lived side by side to one another, this is the first time they have spoken in seventeen years.
This is an example of Fambul Tok (Family Talk), a local reconciliation programme in post-civil war Sierra Leone that is captured with conscientious restraint by filmmaker Sara Terry. In her first feature documentary, she follows the efforts of John Caulker, a human rights activist on a mission to bring reconciliation to a country that has been decimated by war. The conflict in Sierra Leone lasted a staggering eleven years from 1991-2002 in which two million people were displaced and over fifty thousand were murdered. Terry’s documentary doesn’t burden you with the facts, and the archive footage of the war is wisely kept to a minimum. Instead the focus is placed on the personal stories of those who have suffered and caused suffering. Whole villages were destroyed and divided, but the film shows us the beginnings of recovery.
We see a collection of communities as Caulker drives across the country preaching the traditional values of Fambul Tok. These groups are composed of victims and perpetrators, living side by side after a blanket amnesty by the government allowed all rebel soldiers to return to their homes. Talking heads interviews with the victims serve to capture the emotional intensity of the people’s suffering, and by isolating each person’s account reveal how divided communities have become. The campfires present to us the villagers united on screen together, their reconciliation by the fire a symbol of a possible bright future out of the darkness.
As well as showing us these local efforts, Terry contrasts the reconciliation program of Fambul Tok to the special courts created by the UN, containing their Western view of crime and punishment. Terry does not pursue these attacks on post-colonial attempts at ‘fixing’ Africa by the Western world with great conviction. Whilst juxtaposition with the special courts highlights the importance of Fambul Tok in Sierra Leone, the film’s strength lies more as a Christian sermon on the powers of forgiveness and redemption.
The restrained style of the documentary allows the subject matter to take centre stage, though at times it does feel limited and unadventurous. Landscape shots are littered throughout the film, conjuring clichéd ideas of how such beautiful nature can contain such horror and violence. This is successful only in one scene where the villagers describe the Savage Pit, a lake where the rebels dumped the bodies. There are no signs of such horror in the image, but it is all too apparent in the close-up of the murky waters what the camera cannot see, that beneath the surface the landscape is filled with trauma.
A villager states to the camera that, ‘to forgive is to forget.’ African cinema is often limited to looking to the past, whereby previous colonial oppression still leaves the continent being viewed as a feral state full of violence. Whilst the general public is well aware of the wars that have scarred the continent, Fambul Tok stands out as a documentary that sheds new light on how another culture deals with unimaginable horror and develops from it. Whilst never veering into Hollywood sentimentality, it holds an optimistic outlook that by connecting with their traditional roots the people of Sierra Leone can forget the trauma of the past and look ahead to the future.