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SxSW ’10 Interview – " War Don Don" director Rebecca Richman Cohen

War Don Don - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“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 argue that Sesay is a war criminal, guilty of crimes against humanity. His defenders insist that he is a reluctant fighter who protected civilians and played a crucial role in bringing forging the peace. “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.” Director Rebecca Richman Cohen on the film “War Don Don” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

“War Don Don” is my first film in SxSW. It’s also my first film! I will be in Austin for the screenings and I can’t wait. I’ve heard nothing but great things about the festival!

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

My background is actually in law, not film. In law school I worked in criminal defense both at a public defender service in the South Bronx and also on a defense team at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. This was the same court profiled in the film, but I worked on the trial of a different warring faction.

During my time 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 intense 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.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

Tough question. It’s likely I changed my mind every few months which is probably very telling in some ways. One of the things I treasure most about filmmaking is that I have the ability to explore vastly different subjects with every new project. I can spend a couple of years honing stories related to international criminal justice, and then I can start a new project and investigate something totally different. I think the field suits a restless personality.

How did this whole project come together?

A lot of love, hard work, donations, and deferred salaries.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

We struggled with serious questions of access. We embarked on the film without knowing if we’d be able to interview Issa Sesay. There were many naysayers along the way who said we didn’t have a film, unless we had an interview with the man on trial. It’s hard to know if they were right, because more then two years into production, we were able to interview Sesay. It’s certainly a better film with his voice than without it.

There was also a hovercraft accident. Fortunately, no one was hurt! Very frightened, but no physical injuries! It’s a long story.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

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.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

We did a great many rough cut screenings with different audiences; Sierra Leoneans and Westerns, 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 it 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.

Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

As a filmmaker, it’s tempting to want to reach everyone possible, but such broad expectations rarely make for good filmmaking.

We hoped to reach a core audience of policy makers, human rights experts, students, and people especially concerned with the experience of transitional justice in post-conflict countries. But we’re also hoping to attract a larger audience of people who may have no prior connection to the issues or the region, but are nonetheless drawn into the story by the film’s cinematic craft, and good storytelling.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

We referenced Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” frequently in the edit room; the idea that film can put multiple narratives in tension, that the truth can be unsettled, that perception influences memory, and that historical fact may be hard to prove, particularly in a trial. On that note, we were also inspired by Andrew Jarecki’s film “Capturing the Friedmans” on the idea that truth can be elusive, that people can play many different roles in the same story, and that no human being can be entirely defined by the horrible things that they may have done.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I don’t see a set film path. I’ll go wherever inspiring stories take me.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

Public defender. Some day I may even take the bar exam.

I’ve also had the pleasure of doing some adjunct university teaching, and I’ve enjoyed that a great deal. Teaching has provided an invaluable connection to a different sort of audience, as well as an important balance in my professional life. Being in a classroom re-engages me in the big pictures questions that underlie my work. I find it really inspiring to meet students grappling with the same critical issues that I consider in the line of filmmaking/storytelling.

Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

I dream of producing a “behind the scenes” account of one of Warner Herzog’s films.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

Obviously, critical response is very important to the life of a film… but not as important as it used to be. With all the social media platforms available, audiences can assert their own preferences.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

Towards the end of our sound mix we screened at the Stagg Theatre at Skywalker Sound. I can’t imagine “War Don Don” ever sounding quite that good again.

Part of that may be attributed to the delirium that results from working really hard in post-production, but honestly, finishing the sound at Skywalker was a joy that may be difficult to parallel.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

I probably wouldn’t say anything. I’m glad there are successful large studio pictures (I enjoy watching them too) and I don’t think independent filmmakers should necessarily see themselves in competition with the megaplexes. If we make a good film, we’ll find our audience. Maybe that’s naďve (definitely, that’s naďve) – but that’s the assumption that I’m taking with me into the festival circuit.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie (if at your own screening or another movie you attend)?

I would send my mother to have a word with them after the screening. She has the ability to reprimand in a very empathic way!

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

Free popcorn! No… that’s not true. I’ve actually never gotten free popcorn.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Don’t look for easy answers from anyone who believes she can provide universal advice in a one sentence soundbite… Oh! I guess ignore that!

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

Errol Morris’ “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” made me want to be a filmmaker. I learned that with artful juxtapositions, a filmmaker can craft meaning in way that might be otherwise absurd. Or maybe it still is absurd.... but thought provoking and artful nonetheless!

This is one of the many films screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film in Austin, Texas between March 12-20. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 03/10/10 04:26:52
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