“Fambul Tok” (2011). Director: Sara Terry. http://www.fambultok.com
From 1991 to 2002, the West African nation of Sierra Leone was plunged into a collective madness. The country was ravaged by a civil war in which countless unspeakable atrocities were inflicted upon the populace, often by individuals (and, in some cases, family members) who knew one another personally. It’s hard to imagine that anyone, let alone an entire nation, could heal the deep wounds produced by such barbarism. Yet that’s just what this tiny country has been working toward through an innovative reconciliation effort that’s the subject of the inspiring documentary, “Fambul Tok.”
Director Sara Terry’s film examines the workings of a grass-roots initiative known as the Fambul Tok program, whose name in Creole means “Family Talk.” The program is based on traditional village bonfire gatherings in which victims and perpetrators address one another, not only to make amends, but also to help restore the longstanding Sierra Leonean tradition of “community” as a way of life. Victims are afforded an opportunity to articulate their suffering – usually in painfully explicit detail – and perpetrators are subsequently offered the chance to express their remorse, after which victims are asked if they can accept the apologies of their offenders. And, remarkably, forgiveness is nearly always the result, even in the most egregious cases.
The film opens with an explanation of the program, which was founded in 2007 by John Caulker, executive director of the human rights organization Forum of Conscience. Through interviews with Caulker, the documentary illustrates how the program came into being and the significance of its methods, which were founded on traditional principles of Sierra Leonean culture.
As explained in the film, many of those who engaged in the atrocities were coerced into doing so by warlords from various political and tribal factions, often facing certain death if they failed to cooperate. Such practices ripped villages apart, frequently pitting friends and family against one another in life-or-death struggles and assailing the fundamental concept upon which the nation’s culture was based – the sense of community. Yet, through the Fambul Tok program, perpetrators have an opportunity to be welcomed back as full-fledged members of their villages, resuming their place as participating constituents of their communities.
“Fambul Tok” focuses on several personal stories to illustrate the initiative’s power in action. There’s the story of Esther, who at age 12 was captured by rebels and raped by 15 men, including her uncle, Joseph, who faced death if he didn’t cooperate with his captors. Then there’s the account of Nyumah, who was ordered by rebels to beat his best friend Sahr, doing so to the point of crippling him, and then commanded to slit the throat of Sahr’s father. Tamba Joe, meanwhile, turned on the villagers of Foendor, beheading 17 members of his own clan. In each of these cases, however, despite their heinous acts, the perpetrators were ultimately forgiven and welcomed back into their communities.
Cynics might be tempted to look upon this initiative as naïve in its outlook and approach, that such monstrous acts are beyond forgiveness. But those critics should look at what the Fambul Tok participants are creating for themselves – a genuine example of real forgiveness. And what an example to follow. We often elevate the concept of forgiveness to an exalted status, but do we truly practice it when presented with the circumstances to implement it? Or do we just pay it lip service? Over the years there have been countless public examples of apologies being accepted by victims from high-profile transgressors only to have the perpetrators continually criticized by outsiders after the fact. In these situations, one can’t help but see the blatant hypocrisy and judgmentalism, inevitably prompting such observations as “It’s not enough to apologize anymore.” Clearly we could stand to learn a few things from these enlightened souls.
On some level, the Fambul Tok participants understand the conscious creation concept dealing with the inherent connectedness of all things in the reality around us. And that’s important, for an awareness of that principle is essential to creating a bona fide sense of community. It’s also important in understanding how to restore that sense of community when it becomes fractured, as happened during Sierra Leone’s civil war. All the parts of the whole need to be drawn back into it, even in the aftermath of such a tragedy, if it’s ever to be properly reintegrated once again.
There’s also been an amazing irony to come out of this program. In the wake of the conflict, the government established a special trial court to prosecute war criminals, and over the course of many years and exorbitant expenditures of funds, the court tried only a handful of criminals. By contrast, over the course of only four years, the Fambul Tok program conducted numerous forgiveness ceremonies, successfully reconciling countless victims and perpetrators, and at only a fraction of the cost. Whoever said peace only comes at a high price obviously never met the people of Sierra Leone.
“Fambul Tok” is one fine piece of filmmaking from start to finish, an engrossing documentary that holds viewers riveted throughout. It never loses sight of its objectivity, no matter how emotionally painful some of its individual stories are, yet it ultimately delivers an undeniable message of hope, enlightenment and inspiration, one that we all could learn from. The film has been shown at a number of festivals and special screenings (check the picture’s web site), and it’s available on DVD.
Philosophers and theologians have long maintained that there’s tremendous power in the act of forgiveness, though rarely has its impact been illustrated as eloquently as in this documentary. Those interested in alternative means of making peace will be intrigued by the quiet power of this profoundly moving film.
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.