Citizen Jane Report #3

I’d argue that on the whole documentary films are a force for good whose consumption should be encouraged—so there’s no harm in gorging yourself on them now and then.


If you’re a documentary junkie like me then the Citizen Jane Film Festival is definitely the place to be. It’s like a well-stocked bar for an alcoholic or an unattended pastry counter for someone who’s supposed to be watching their weight. Of course unlike some other addictions, watching documentaries isn’t bad for you. In fact, I’d argue that on the whole documentary films are a force for good whose consumption should be encouraged—so there’s no harm in gorging yourself on them now and then.

War Don Don ( directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen, really knocked me for a loop. The title means “the war is over” and the film takes up the question of how to bring justice to a country after a civil war particularly notable for atrocities (amputations, kidnappings, rapes) against civilians and for the use of child soldiers. War Don Don documents the war crimes trial of RUF commander Issa Sesay by an international tribunal in Freetown, Sierra Leone and lays bare many of the difficult issues faced by those involved in the proceedings. In fact, it virtually gives you an insider’s seat in the courtroom and lets you experience some of the ambiguities inherent in what at first seems to be an open-and-shut case.

The problems with conducting a conventional trial in such circumstances are manifold; there is no question that atrocities were committed, but determining who should be held responsible for them poses quite a dilemma. Imagine the Nuremberg Trials without the German penchant for record-keeping, when many victims are afraid to testify openly, and in which Nazi leaders could plausibly make the case that they were reluctant participants in the war, attempted to protect civilians and ultimately helped bring peace to the country.

The prosecution, led by Stephen Rapp, argues that those at the top of the RUF hierarchy should be held responsible for the behavior of those under their command. The defense, led by Wayne Jordash, claims that it would be impossible to prove that Sesay knew what was happening in the field, let alone that he ordered the atrocities, and that in the absence of such a direct connection his client is merely being sacrificed as a scapegoat for all the evils committed during the war. Jordash also argues that Sesay was himself a victim who was tricked into joining the army at a young age, and that he should be credited with bringing peace to the country by voluntarily disarming the RUF after Foday Sankoh was arrested.

War Don Don concentrates on the court proceedings and on interviews with the legal staff and witness, but it also captures the response of people in rural communities (many of whom bear amputations or other scars from the civil war). At the end of the film you are left with more questions than answers, including questions about the usefulness of holding such high-profile trials of a few leaders, whether application of the Western system of justice is the best way to bring closure to this terrible period in Sierra Leone’s history and whether it is even possible to determine the truth given the circumstances of the civil war and the difficulties facing the court.

War Don Don was shown with the short Sanza Hanza: King Surfer, directed by Nadia Halgren, who was also the cinematographer for War Don Don. This film looks at the sport of “trainsurfing” as practiced by several young men from Soweto. Basically they ride on the outside of railroad cars, doing gymnastics maneuvers and other tricks while the train is in motion. It’s really scary to watch and the guys know how dangerous it is (they admit knowing to people who died while trainsurfing) but are fueled not only by the fearlessness of youth but also by the lack of any future to look forward to. The film is not a downer, however; it’s joyful and exuberant, at least if you can still that parental voice in your head that tells you how mad the whole enterprise is.

The Last Truck, directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, looks at the last days of a GM plant in Moraine, Ohio. Nominated for an Oscar in 2010, it’s a fine film that offers a textbook example of how to tell an ordinary story (plant closings, unfortunately, are nothing new these days) with power and dignity. Reichert, who was present at the screening, says she considered the film an “elegy” to the workers that celebrates all that was good about the plant as well as acknowledging the pain caused when it finally shut down. She also shared a lot of information about how the film was made. For instance, most of the footage inside the plant was shot by assembly-line workers who were supplied by the filmmakers with flip cameras, because plant security did not allow the film crew inside (except for 15 minutes on one day when they, along with members of the press, were allowed to shoot inside the plant).

The film is structured like a mystery that starts with the conclusion and then works backwards in flashbacks to show how it got there. In this case, the focus is on how the plant’s workers respond to the upcoming change: none of them are looking forward to it because they know they can’t make a similar wage anywhere else in the community. Some of the older workers see it as the end of an era, mourning the fact that their children won’t have the same opportunities they enjoyed. Some reflect that they and the plant have had a good run. Some are angry at the thought of having to learn new job skills and some are just confused about what their next step will be. The ultimate feeling you are left with is that the plant workers were a community, and now that community is no more.

The short Sweatshop Cinderella, directed by Suzanne Wasserman, was shown before The Last Truck. It looks at the life and works of the American Jewish writer Anzia Yezierska, who became a well-known fiction writer and had several of her stories adapted as Hollywood films. Incorporating interviews, archival materials and the only known recording of Yezierska, the film focuses as much on the reaction of modern women, including the filmmaker, to Yezierska as it does to the writer herself. It should help bring the works of this powerful writer, noted for her refusal to accept the limited role accorded women in Orthodox Jewish culture, to greater public notice. | Sarah Boslaugh

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