Fambul Tok: Film Review

Shocking and inspiring look at the aftermath of Sierra Leone brutality and a campaign to heal devastated communities.

Director Sara Terry brings a career's worth of journalism experience to this assured filmmaking debut that examines John Caulker's Fambul Tok organization, which addresses the deep wounds created by a decade of civil war in Sierra Leone.

AUSTIN — The healing power of forgiveness may sound like a syrupy or pie-in-the-sky subject for a documentary. But in the engrossing Fambul Tok, the staggering nature of the sins in question and the directness with which they're confronted make for something more rock-ribbed than the average do-gooder doc. The film has a shot with a niche theatrical audience and, given smart promotion, could enjoy a broad reach on the small screen.

Director Sara Terry brings a career's worth of journalism experience to this assured filmmaking debut, organizing her material into chapters that escalate in drama and illuminate her main subject's mission without ever getting distracted by his personal life or history.

Sierra Leonean John Caulker created the Fambul Tok organization to address the deep wounds created by a decade of civil war. The name is Creole for "family talk," referring to village-wide gatherings around bonfires — in this case, meetings in which victims of violence publicly accuse those who wounded them and, remarkably, grant immediate forgiveness when it is requested sincerely.

We watch as a man who was forced to rape his 12 year-old niece kneels before her to apologize; a boy who crippled and blinded his best friend does the same. In each case, victim and aggressor (who often was being forced into the act at gunpoint) wind up embracing, smiling and dancing just moments after reliving the darkest moments of their lives.

Terry follows Caulker from village to village as he convinces locals to mend their communities with his ritual — a home-brewed alternative to hugely expensive courts built by foreigners and to sweep-it-under-the-rug blanket amnesties.

Aided by Henry Jacobson's artful cinematography, she captures the rifts violence caused in these tightly knit villages and conveys how essential moving on is to everyone involved, not just emotionally, but in terms of survival.

The level of atrocity increases, and the filmmakers watch as Caulker tries to find a man who beheaded over a dozen members of his own clan. The result is an on-camera moment of soul-searching that will not fail to move viewers.

Venue: South By Southwest Festival, Spotlight Premieres section
Production company: Tarmac Road, LLC
Director: Sara Terry
Producers: Sara, Terry, Rory Kennedy
Executive producer: Libby Hoffman
Director of photography: Henry Jacobson
Music: Issar Shulman
Editor: Brian Singbiel
Sales: Glen Reynolds, Circus Road Films
No rating, 81 minutes