The Sierra Leone Civil War was a bloody struggle that ravaged the West African country from about 1991 to 2002, ending when the Revolutionary United Front signed a peace treaty with the government that officially put the battles to an end. After a number of atrocious crimes including massacring villages and raping women, fighters awkwardly returned to their respective villages amongst the very people they scarred. A “special court” was set up to try people for war crimes, but like most legal cases, they moved along at the speed of molasses and brought a very small number of people to the stand.
There was no more fighting, but there was also no unity. Was this truly what peace was like? Native activist John Caulker wasn’t happy with this lack of community in Sierra Leone and decided to start a grass-roots movement branded "fambul tok." Translated to “family talk,” this ancient tradition finds villagers confronting a criminal member of their society in front of a campfire. They speak about what he/she has done, the importance of that person as a member of their settlement, and grants them forgiveness. Caulker travels from village to village organizing these ceremonies, and first-time filmmaker Sara Terry is in tow to capture the momentous meetings, while also giving the program leader the opportunity to fill viewers in on the war and his intent. “Fambul Tok” is a hit-and-miss compilation of this journey, a movie at its strongest when focusing on the titular conversations and suffering when giving Caulker too strong of a spotlight.
After providing some necessary (and easily digestible) context on the civil wars, the courts, and the purpose of the town meetings, the first session is prepared and executed without a hitch. When the person accused requests forgiveness, everyone immediately complies, ecstatic to move on and feel like a community again. The cut and dry proceedings and relative quickness enforce the idea that these people just want to be a family again. Of course, it’d be foolish to think that all people would quickly forgive murderers and rapists, and the next few stops in the tour are emotional and difficult. Some riot when a man admits to destroying their homes; in another area, the family of Tamba Joe are persecuted due to his acts of beheading more than a dozen of his clan. The filmmaker turns her sights to these deeply-wounded victims and they spill their morose tales directly to the camera.
The key to “Fambul Tok” is obviously the confrontations, a happening so interesting that it begs to be the subject of a movie. Terry quietly observes from a distance with a trusty wide lens, the people barely lit by the raging fire in the center. When she allows people to relate to the camera it works wonderfully, however, the numerous dialogues by Caulker do not. Don’t get us wrong, his work is important, but he’s just not as fascinating as his program is, a notion that he’d likely agree with. Any focus on him after he explains the mission statement of fambul tok is an unnecessary road bump.
It’s without a doubt a very compelling, humanist story, but Terry’s neglect of the environment they live in is a large misstep. It must be acknowledged that the setting where everything takes place is extremely important and has much to add to a person’s behavior, after all, this is the land they fought on and holds the societies they’re attempting to repair. This large layer mostly goes unused, and when the director actually does take time to ruminate on the lush forests and intimate settlements, it feels less like a part of the grand idea and more like faceless b-roll thrown in to punch up the film.
Caulker’s efforts to bring together his countrymen has resulted in over six hundred people coming clean and being accepted back into their villages, with total expenses coming in around $1 million. This is in stark contrast to the victories held by the “special courts,” which clocks in at about ten convicted and over $200 million spent. Patching up severely damaged relationships in a different, open way is certainly a great topic to build a movie around, and sometimes “Fambul Tok” does its subject justice. But at other moments, it misses the mark, resulting in an uneven film. [C+]