The opening scene of Fambul Tok is as powerful as any documentary could hope for: A few dozen Sierra Leone villagers circle a campfire—the social center of their tiny community—one of them stands and accuses another, her own uncle, of slaughtering her family during the 1991 civil war. The gathering becomes a tribunal as the leader reiterates the charges and then asks the accused if they are accurate. And then, instead of handing down a sentence, the leader asks the man’s accuser if she forgives him. She does.
It’s everything an opening scene should be: engaging, tense, and a capsulation of the film.
Fambul Tok, which is Sierra Leonean for “family talk,” refers to this process, where, instead of charging one with a crime and judging him with a jury of his peers, justice is replaced with forgiveness in the hope of fostering peace. This method, its application and merits, are the focus of the film as explored by director Sara Terry and her guide John Caulker, himself a victim of the Sierra Leonean atrocities.
Through its course, the two seek out the worst offenders to bring them before their villages, similarly confessing their crimes and asking for forgiveness. Chief among the subjects is Esther, the woman from the opening scene; Sahr and Nyumah, who were forced to battle each other, leaving Sahr a cripple; and the elusive Tamba Joe, who beheaded nearly twenty members of his own clan.
Along the way, Terry emphasizes the importance of fambul tok as a healing ritual and self-sufficient solution to rebuilding the country. She also criticizes the effectiveness of using the distinctly “Western” system of trial and punishment in a culture that emphasizes the necessity of even its worst members.
The groundwork is laid for a terrific documentary, but the film missteps in treating the superiority of fambul tok as given. I don’t doubt that another hearty dose of colonialism is not the best way to ensure peace, but by the end I wasn’t convinced fambul tok is the right way either. Outside of tok being a cultural tradition, the film doesn’t offer many reasons for its advantages, and instead of inspiring hope, much less prosperity, the process becomes a means unto its own end. Maybe it does work, but the film comes off as presumptuous, ignoring the serious questions it raises to a Western viewer.
Foremost is the sheer naivety. My astonishment at the fambul tok sequences is not shared with the filmmakers, or at least I wasn’t astonished at what I what I was supposed to be astonished at: That one member of the tribe is willing to forgive another for their horrible crimes—that incredulity struck me in the opening scene, but after repetition after repetition of forgiveness, I was more incredulous that anyone seriously believes fambul tok actually works. And, for that matter, as far as the film discloses, it really doesn’t.
The film returns to some villages and villagers later to prove their point and even displays an impressive list of statistics at the end as validation, but these numbers only prove that fambul tok is less costly and has more participants than an international tribunal. That’s not an especially noteworthy accomplishment—international tribunals are some of the costliest politics around—and besides, there’s no way to gauge which approach was more “successful” since the aim of the latter is retribution and the aim of the former is sweeping past sins under the rug.
I also didn’t buy into the notion of the Sierra Leonean people eschewing individuality and functioning as an autonomous group. If that were the case, then why forgive a particular person at all? Isn’t that a simple recognition that they’re not functioning as a group? Likewise, in a collective identity, inter-collective “rape” and “violence” can’t, technically, exist. Nor can one recognize another as responsible for a crime; nor can the accused beg for forgiveness; nor can the accuser grant it, solely or other.
But these are largely semantic quibbles and not likely to serve any purpose other than instill boiling torrents of rage in Sierra Leone anthropologists. The real question to ask, and what no one asks in the film is, “Are the war criminals truly rehabilitated?” If another civil war were to break out, to me it’d be a forgone conclusion that the “forgiven” members of the collective—the uncle from the opening scene and others—would go right back to committing the same atrocities for which they were charged. And why shouldn’t they, since they suffered no repercussions? Perhaps there are cultural reason that explain why they wouldn’t, but such assurances are likewise ignored.
When the criminals are brought before the village and accused, they cave immediately. Similarly they attempt to excuse their crimes by explaining that in those previous situations, they were also under duress—so what’s the pattern here? The people who are most likely to commit war crimes are also the most likely to beg forgiveness, not out of a guilty conscience nor desire for repentance nor from any deeper yearning to sacrifice themselves for the good of the village—rather they come off as cowards who follow whatever group pressures them the most—and while the rest of the village may consider them “family,” put a gun to these people’s collective heads and axes in their hands, and they’ll go right back to chopping their “families” up—worse yet, the truly despicable ones we’re introduced to, such as the aptly named “Captain Savage” will go back to enjoying it, too.
Of course the counter to these arguments would be pointing out my ignorance of Sierra Leonean culture, but, again and again, the film fails to explain why I’m (assuming I am) wrong. To that same end, if you’re not as convinced as the filmmakers of fambul tok’s merits, each successive ritual loses its effectiveness while the omissions becoming more and more glaring. Maybe fambul tok is the true path to peace and prosperity for the Sierra Leonean people, but as far as the documentary goes, I needs less Fambul and more Tok.