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SXSW '10 | Rebecca Richman Cohen Justifies Her Law School Tuition with "War Don Don"

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire March 15, 2010 at 12:34PM

Rebecca Richman Cohen went from law school to behind the camera after finding the story that she needed to tell. "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 say Sesay is a war criminal, guilty of crimes against humanity. His defenders say he is a reluctant fighter who played a crucial role in bringing peace. "War Don Don" tells the story of a sensational trial with unprecedented access to prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims and, from behind bars, Issa 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."
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Rebecca Richman Cohen went from law school to behind the camera after finding the story that she needed to tell. "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 say Sesay is a war criminal, guilty of crimes against humanity. His defenders say he is a reluctant fighter who played a crucial role in bringing peace. "War Don Don" tells the story of a sensational trial with unprecedented access to prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims and, from behind bars, Issa 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."

Editor's Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening in the Narrative Competition, Documentary Competition and Emerging Visions sections at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.

War Don Don
Documentary Feature
Director: Rebecca Richman Cohen
Rebecca Richman Cohen & Francisco Bello
Co-Producer: Daniel J. Chalfen
Executive Producers: Jim Butterworth & David Menschel
Cinematography: Nadia Hallgren
Editor: Francisco Bello
Music: Max Avery Lichtenstein
85 minutes

Cohen talks about becoming a filmmaker from days as a lawyer...

My formal training 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 an international war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone (though I worked on a separate trial than the one profiled in the film).

Both criminal defense and documentary filmmaking satisfied my impulse to investigate high stake stories – but only documentary filmmaking satisfied my urge to tell those stories from different perspectives. As a defense lawyer you’re ethically bound to zealously advocate for your client – often at the expense of getting to the truth. As a filmmaker you’re ethically bound to your audience to tell an honest and balanced story.

Cohen on coming to the story...

While I was in law school, I worked on a defense team at the Special Court for Sierra Leone – and 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 passionate 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 or would represent.

On working with subjects...

"War Don Don" filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen. Image courtesy of filmmaker.

I treat my subjects with respect and I try to honor their perspectives – even if I disagree with them. I assume that audiences can sort through competing narratives and come to their own conclusions. One of the greatest joys of documentary filmmaking is the impassioned debate that arises from having to sort through the tensions within and between conflicting stories.

On the challenge of making a film without all the access you want...

We struggled with serious questions of access — and we embarked on the film without knowing if we’d be able to interview Issa Sesay or not. 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.

On making a film that functions as a Rorsschach test...

I knew we were done editing when different people took away different things from the film – when the film acted like a Rorschach test of sorts. I hope audiences enjoy having some of their assumptions tested and are keen to examine their own reactions to controversial issues framed in a cinematic way.

Cohen on inspirations...

We referenced "Rashomon" frequently in the edit room – the idea that film can put multiple narratives in tension, that the truth can be unsettled, that self-serving biases can influence memory, and that historical fact may be hard to prove, particularly in a trial. On that note, we were also inspired by Capturing the Friedmans -- the idea that truth can be elusive, that people can play many different roles in the same story, and that human beings are more then the sum total of the worst thing that they may have done.

Cohen justifies her law school tuition with her filmmaking dreams...

I’m still trying to justify three years of law school tuition – so future projects all are human stories that illuminate an issue in law.

This article is related to: Features, Interviews, War Don Don