Fambul Tok Film Review @DOCNYC Fest 2011

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I found out that the much talked about Fambul Tok Documentary was playing at the DOC NYC, New York’s Documentary Film Festival last weekend and I went to check it out. The film played at the IFC on West 4th Street in New York City. The theater was packed full.


The makers of the Fambul Tok documentary want you to believe that John Caulker’s NGO of the same name is an innovative traditional approach to reconcialition perhaps more affective than the UN Special Court. The film follows John Caulker and his team as they travel to the South and East of Sierra Leone to villages off the beaten path sometime in 2009.

Esther, Sahr, Nyuma, Tamba Joe, Savage, and Feondor are the names that you will hear in the film. Some of the characters are victims and others perpetrators but all forever affected by crimes committed against them or by them during the war.
John Caulker explains that fambul tok (family talk) is a way of rebuilding the social fabric torn apart by a war that pitted friend against friend and nieghbours against each other.

Everyone involved seem to come forward and forgive those who might have committed the worst atrocities against them. But I feel that the film over simplifies the reconciliation process. I find it difficult to believe that lives so devastatingly shattered by war could be so easily repaired around a bonfire. Also there is no doubt in my mind that some who participated in the fambul tok bonfires could have been coerced by others in the community even if they were not ready to reconcile.

The film opens with John Caulker leaving his house getting into what looks like a Range Rover with a mobile phone in his hand. Later he explains that their NGO doesnt give any money to villages and that the communities bring everything they need to the bonfire. At the end of the film we read that Fambul Tok’x budget for the first two years of its operation was $1million compared to $220,000million spent by the UN Special Court. If the organisation doesn’t give anything to villages, how did they spend $1million in Sierra Leone? Thats a big budget for a local NGO. Then my mind flashes back to John entering his Range Rover.

At the end of the screening filmmaker Sara Terry tells the audience that it was John Caulker’s idea to make the film and that she is sure that he will one day win the Nobel Prize for Peace. She explains that “the film was made for westerners to learn from” and that she wanted Africa to speak for itself. Terry says that she wanted to show that Africans have the answers to their own problems and that westerners should stop trying to tell them what to do.

What she doesnt say is that Fambul Tok the NGO and documentary was funded by a larger organisation based in the US; Catalyst for Peace. She also does not mention as I found out through a source that part of the $1million operational budget for the NGO went towards the making of the film. It is now making the rounds at different festivals and the DVD is now on sale. Proceeds of which I do not think are going back to those who told their stories nor to increase the work of the NGO fambul Tok in Sierra Leone.
Halfway into the film I was in tears as a man in a village named Foendor explains how his whole family was masacred. He watched it all hidden in the bush, helpless as his baby was smashed into the ground like a log. Impossible to forget.

The stories from Sierra Leone’s civil war will continue to haunt all of us and reconcialiation is important but even more crucial to that is development. So by all means go see Fambul Tok when it comes to a city near you but be aware that peace and reconcilliation are more complex than conversations around a bonfire. Its been 10 years since the end of the war and most Sierra Leoneans just want to move on from the war. They dont want to talk about it. They just want to move on.
Check out Indiewire’s Review of Fambul Tok