by Lauren Ann Donia and Matthew Gordon
In its 2010 list of 25 New Faces in Independent Film, Filmmaker Magazine tagged Rebecca Richman Cohen as an “up-and-comer poised to shape the next generation of independent film." It’s easy to see why. Her first feature documentary, War Don Don, which she both produced and directed, has not only racked up awards and accolades, but was picked up for broadcast by HBO. The film follows the trial of accused war criminal Issa Sesay and in the process takes a hard look at international criminal justice. This October we brought Rebecca to campus to screen War Don Don as part of our 2010 Human Rights Film Series. We interviewed her before her screening.
What is WAR DON DON about and how did you get involved in the project?
RRC: I’m originally trained not as a filmmaker, but as a lawyer. I had gone to law school and actually spent one of my summers working at the Special Court for Sierra Leone on a defense team. Not the trial that’s profiled in the film, but the trial of a separate warring faction. I came to know lawyers who were involved in both the prosecution and the defense in the Issa Sesay trial. It was just amazing how committed they were to their case and the people they were representing, their clients or the victims. I felt like that tension would lend itself to a pretty powerful story.
Did you have a clear sense of the story arc from the beginning?
RRC: Yes. We set out to make a film about a trial. The original proposal I wrote was actually very close to the final film that we made. It was reasonably foreseeable what would happen over the course of that trial. It was a five-year long trial and we came in two or three years into the process already. During the course of filmmaking, we went on some crazy tangents because in part, as a first time filmmaker, I just didn’t have faith that the trial could sustain a narrative for a feature length film. So, we were exploring all these different tangents and characters who were orbiting around the trial. Then, when we really got down into the thick of editing, we realized that the trial footage was some of the most powerful stuff we had. It was also utterly confusing and incoherent, so the process of editing for us was really the process of simplifying. And the film is laid out in a very straightforward structure. It does start with the end of the trial, but then it’s the prosecution’s case, the defense case, some interesting twists, and the conclusion. It just took us a long time, I think, to be confident that the material was strong enough to be able to use such a simple structure.
Did your background as a lawyer help you in the filmmaking process, and did you find any challenges not having a background in film?
RRC: First to clarify, I’m not a lawyer because I never took the bar, much to the dismay of my grandmother. I’m a law school graduate, I’m a Juris Doctor, but I am not a lawyer. Also, I do have a background in film. I worked as an assistant editor for a few years before I went to law school. So I definitely had a foot in that world, and not only had I seen a film come together before, but I knew very talented, young, hungry people who were my age, in their mid-twenties, who I could reach out to and say, ‘I have this crazy idea, I think we have pretty good access, do you want to go back to West Africa with me?’ That was incredibly important. I found my filmmaking partner Francisco Bello, who is just very gifted and was a very good balance to my skills. I remember starting to work with Francisco and wanting to hand him three stacks of books and ask him to read them. Francisco replied, ‘You know, I’m not as concerned in the technicalities, I’m not going to read the rules of operating procedures of the Special Court, I’m really concerned with story. You need to know these things in order to cover it, and it’s really good that one of us does, but in some sense, it’s important that I can keep my eye as an editor. Then I can broaden my vision for the bigger picture, while you use your legal skills and take care of these little details about the intricacies of how the court works.’
Was it a concern that the trial would be full of legalese and talking heads, and how did that affect the post-production process?
RRC: Yes, it was very much a concern that the film would be boring and full of legalese. It was something that Francisco and I talked and thought about a lot. The material was so dramatic in and of itself. A journalist named Rebecca West had commented on the Nuremberg tribunals after World War II that they were “a citadel of boredom.” And I think that’s true for the day-to-day of most trials. Even the worst crimes in the world, even the most dramatic accusations and evidence, the day-to-day trials are still really boring. Even though there are some dramatic moments and I think we found those, we also had to explain a lot of law for the film to make sense. I think by crafting it well and by tying those explanations to the story, where you understood what was at stake or you felt connected to the people who had a stake in this outcome, was the way to push through the density of the material. We were constantly concerned whether it would be able to do justice to the real drama of the stakes that were involved.
At what point did you start post-production?
RRC: We were editing the entire time that we were shooting, which was a great gift, and I can’t imagine making a film any other way. We kept running out of money, but it was fine because the trial took forever and it wasn’t going to take us three years to edit the film. We would edit for at least a few months after every shoot and be very familiar with what we had shot, and more importantly, with what we were missing. By the time we went back for the final shoot, it was a very short shoot, 10 days. We just went back for the sentencing judgment, and we already had a rough cut of the entire film. We had a very clear shot list of what we needed. The shoot was by far the easiest and most relaxed. We had to get, this, this, and this and when we weren’t filming that, we could relax and have interesting off-camera conversations with people involved in the trial and not feel so stressed.
Did you have any big challenges along the way?
RRC: I remember being terrified for most of the filmmaking process. I remember being terrified about almost everything. I was terrified, first and foremost, that we wouldn’t be able to tell a coherent story. I was terrified that we wouldn’t be able to raise the funds that were necessary to finish the film. I was very worried that someone would get hurt or that we’d have an emergency in West Africa and have to do some sort of medical evacuation. But, I’m a producer, that’s my job. I’m supposed to worry. Too much worrying is not useful but a certain amount of worrying, I think, braces you for bad things that do happen and prepares you for the worst. It makes sure you have a medical evacuation plan when you’re traveling in very rural parts of the continent. Every film has it’s own challenges. For us, we went in knowing that we had very unique access because I had worked at the court, and because people trusted me in a certain way due to my legal background. I was very familiar with the trials and the operating procedures of the Special Court. But we went into the filmmaking process thinking that we were not going to be able to interview Issa Sesay, the accused war criminal who is at the center of the film. And Francisco, my filmmaking partner, and I thought, ‘well, that’s ok.’ It’s a film that sort of orbits around him much as the trial in certain ways paints him as an object and not a human. The film actually mimics that pattern of the trial. So, we’re going to make this film anyway. Lots of funders said, interesting idea, if you get the interview with Sesay, come back. You need that to make the film. And at the very end, we did get the interview with Sesay. We got it when we already had a rough cut and we only had him for a few hours, so he’s sort of sprinkled throughout the film. His voice is not central to it. It’s still in many ways a film that orbits around him without resolving him or really giving him the space to tell the story in his own words. But that was a huge challenge. Trying to tell a story about a character who was absent.
In documentary you are tell a story that makes claims to truth and reality, but at the same time, you’re manipulating reality: condensing time, chronology, music, sound effects. How do you deal with these conflicts?
RRC: Very, very tough question, and I think any filmmaker could answer this with a treatise. I think there are whole courses taught about these questions. Documentary filmmaking is influenced by many different things. In some ways, it draws on lots of skills and resources from journalism, from representing something that did happen in real time and space. It also draws, I think in many ways, on fiction film and on writing a novel and on crafting or constructing something. In order to tell a story and make it coherent and make it understandable, and in fact not to distort that truth, but to be more true to it, reconstructing it in the storytelling process. So there’s a lot of anxiety because your subjects trust you. In this case, we were talking to people whose lives and careers were at stake in this trial. And both sides put a great deal of faith in us to tell their story in an honest and balanced way. In the end, both the prosecution and the defense were supportive of the film. Issa Sesay, the accused, now convicted, war criminal saw the film and liked it. He called me while he was testifying for Charles Taylor’s defense to tell me he thought the film was nice. Both sides felt that we had done an honest and balanced job. That’s not always true for filmmakers and your job isn’t first and foremost to please your subjects. It’s to be true to your audience. Sometimes when you’re telling stories about people you don’t agree with, they’re not going to like their portrayal. In some ways, I feel that we were very lucky that people appreciated the stories we told about them. But first and foremost, our job is to tell a true story and true can mean crafted. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but you are beholden to a notion of truth when you’re making a documentary film.
What was the timeline from when you first conceived of the film to its completion?
RRC: I was in law school when I started thinking about the film and I applied to fellowship programs. So I was funded basically to go back and do a scout trip and do some shooting myself, which was enough to convince friends back in New York that this was a film worthy of making. Maybe I couldn’t pay them right now, but I’d pay them soon. With that, I was able to wrangle a group of wonderful, talented, creative people to go back and start shooting. The process took three and a half years. Often, independent documentary films take longer. It took us that long to tell the story. The trial took a total of five years. We were filming right up until the end of the trial and then we were editing for about eight months after that. That seemed pretty reasonable. Fundraising was easier at the very beginning when I was telling people, ‘well I have this idea, we have access, we haven’t shot anything, it’s a great idea.’ Some people were excited about that. The middle was very hard for fundraising because we didn’t have much to show, it wasn’t that coherent, it was a little boring and long. It was really hard, even having shot a little bit, to say, ‘this is sort of my vision and we have this ten minute trailer.’ There were definitely some scary times in there. It wasn’t until the end, once we had a rough cut that made sense, that a sophisticated funder could say, ‘I can see where this film is going.’ Then it was much easier for us to raise funds and to continue the process. But there was lots of stopping and starting throughout.
In the film, there is motif of cameras and televisions—people being watched and people watching. How did that come about?
RRC: That was in some sense a grammatical response to this issue we had, and many filmmakers have, of having lots of different textures in your film. We shot the film in high definition video, and it’s sharp and it’s vibrant. We had, I think, DVCAM of the courtroom footage. The court had four cameras on the walls and filmed the entire trial. We had access to everything that happened in open court, so that was a different texture. The third texture was archival footage. Much of it that we obtained was shot by the rebels themselves and literally had just been degraded. They had dubbed VHS tape to VHS tape. When you degrade enough generations, it starts to look sort of like a watercolor. The colors start to blur at the edges and it has a very different look and feel. We wanted to explain this through the grammar of film somehow. The first jump was that we decided to film the cameras that were filming the courtroom, just to be able to visually help you understand why we were seeing a different texture. Often in film, you make choices and then you figure out the symbolism later once you try it. At least that’s how it worked for us. It was really sort of a statement on how the understanding of these trials was mediated through the process of filming. We’re both filming it, the court’s filming it, the court is producing these videos for their outreach campaign. That’s something you see in the film. So it’s not that Sierra Leoneans are in the courtroom themselves watching and experiencing it firsthand, it’s that it’s already edited, it’s already narrated in a certain way, and that’s the way most Sierra Leoneans are experiencing it. We wanted to call attention to that, and sort of make that a visual motif throughout the film. The film is very much about historical memory and the way that historical narratives get produced, or in fact, distorted through trials, through the adversarial process. Much as, I think, these stories often get distorted through the biases of witnesses, through their retelling on cross examination. The videotape is physically degraded after dubbing it from generation to generation, so it seemed like a visual metaphor that was echoing themes that we were trying to raise in the film.
Did you replay footage back on TVs and just film it again?
RRC: Sometimes, and we did that with Issa Sesay’s interview because we sort of wanted to take you in and out of that space in a way that made you feel somewhat removed, where you got closer and closer to him. Clearly, we are shooting some of it off monitors, and we have a great deal of footage of Sierra Leoneans watching the trial we shot in a somewhat controlled circumstance. I mean they are literally watching the trial but we could silhouette, we could control lighting, we could film in slow motion. So that did give us the ability to sort of play with technique and craft in a more controlled way.
What project are you working on now?
RRC: War Don Don was my first film and everyone says your first film is sort of like your baby. We finished the film in March, we premiered it in March, and then everyone’s asking ‘what are you doing next, what are you doing next?’ And I just want to say, ‘why don’t you just pat me on the back for finishing this film? Let’s celebrate this for a while, give me a little time please.’ (laughs) We finished the film in March, and I said in July, maybe we’ll start researching, I’ll go on a research trip in August. Francisco Bello, my filmmaking partner and I, had long talked about doing a film about marijuana. I had worked at a public defender service in law school. I was originally sort of interested in it from a criminal justice perspective, and we knew we wanted to make the film not in California because that state had a lot of coverage on the issue. And not in a place where there were a lot of hippies, so not the West Coast. And we got drawn to a story that was unfolding in Montana, and the story seemed to be unfolding very, very quickly, which was a blessing and a curse. We scrambled and started shooting this summer, and I think we’ll be done shooting by late winter, early spring. I’m not going to make any promises when we’ll have it out. (laughs)
How hard was it finding subjects for your latest film?
RRC: Very easy. It’s funny, on my first film I had to convince people that we were a legitimate filmmaking team. I mean, I was a first time filmmaker but Francisco, my partner, is an Academy Award nominated filmmaker. He’s young, but he has paid his dues and has won awards. I think people had known me as an intern at the Special Court, and to say, ‘I’m actually coming back as a filmmaker now and I’m going to finish this,’ was something hard for people to see. At least for my second film, we had a website up, people at my production company, people who had stories to tell and believed that I was a vehicle to tell those stories to reach larger audiences. They have been incredibly generous about investing their time and trust in us. I do think part of that is having made a successful film before.
How do you make a living as a filmmakers and what advice do you have for people entering the field?
RRC: In your question, you’re assuming I’m making a living. (laughs) Throughout the filmmaking process, Francisco and I both had other jobs. I was an adjunct faculty member here at American University. I taught a summer session course at the Human Rights Institute. I taught a course at Rhode Island School of Design. I also worked as a freelance producer on other films. We scrambled. It’s very, very hard. I knew it was hard going in. Everyone told me it was very, very hard so I knew enough to repeat back that it’s very, very hard. You are, not only scrambling to pay your rent, but also to make sure you can continue to pay for the edit space and your editor, and pushing it forward. It’s really overwhelming and it’s not easy, and that part doesn’t get easier. Every film is its own business model. Just because you make one film doesn’t mean you’re going to make another successful film. And the people who funded your first film may not care about the topic of your second film at all. Now we have these wonderful relationships with organizations that do transitional justice and if we made another film about a war crime trial, that would be way easier. (laughs) But we’re really switching gears and exploring other themes and issues. It’s always very, very hard. You have to be somewhat deluded or at least be able to shut down that anxiety in order to plunge forward, because I don’t think rational people make films.
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