fambul tok posteraka Forgiveness is hard

“The family tree bends, but it does not break.” –Sierra Leonean proverb

Whereas Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy in response to human tragedy, Fambul Tok is a documentary examining the repercussions of a more recent horror.  Sara Terry brings her journalism experience in her directorial debut, slowing laying out a story of what it looks like to do the work of forgiveness.

From 1991 – 2002, civil war engulfed Sierra Leone.  With a legacy of hate and colonialism that no amount of reparations can make right nor bring healing, this was a country already beleaguered by poverty, government corruption, and an ill distribution of wealth (the reality of blood/conflict diamonds had the spotlight shown on them in the eponymous movie).  Three factions ripped the country apart, and in their wake: women were systematically raped, children were forced into war, villages were decimated (one person noted that in their village, even their dogs were killed), many people had forced amputations, and thousands were killed and over two million people were displaced.

Thirteen people were indicted and held responsible for the war (over $200M spent on trials for ten of them).  Everyone else associated with the violence and atrocities were given blanket amnesty.  So ex-combatants, empowered with amnesty, returned to their native villages to live alongside the very people they abused.  This doesn’t include those people who were viewed as collaborators.  And everyone had to pretend that they were fine when the reality was that seeing their abuser triggering old wounds, bumping into old hurts and setting of an emotional cascade.  The abuser themselves may be wallowing in their own brokenness, not forgiving themselves or being able to find reconciliation with their own people.

A Truth and Reconciliation Committee met from 2002-2004 modeled on the South African one convened post-apartheid, but that was a western process.  Few people were willing to testify, after all, they had amnesty.  After that, the conventional mindset was “it’s over.  Let it go.”  John Caulker, a community organizer, pushed for grassroots reconciliation, to deal with the deep wounds facing his community with the hopes that people would find healing through a series of ceremonies based truth-telling and forgiveness called Fambul Tok.

Bonfire, KpangakonduFambul Tok, is Creole for “family talk.”  Their culture wasn’t steeped in individualism, but one of community.  Every member of the community felt the responsibility to make sure a child grew up properly.  This is a culture built around conversation, with story-telling in the evening to talk about the day’s events.  So it was an extension of this ritual of storytelling that had people confronting their abusers within the power of a story circle, telling their stories and being heard.

“Forgiving is being able to forgive, to forget when someone does wrong to you and to look for the future.” –Sahr

War tore apart their communities and broken relationships were the highest cost, creating stumbling blocks for moving forward.  However, war didn’t destroy the culture of forgiveness.  Vengeance/justice is easy, but the idea of prisons was a foreign concept to them pre-colonialism.  A proverb went that “there is no bad bush where we can thrown a bad child”, so it was incumbent on the village to help transform any offender in to a resource to help rebuild the community they helped destroy.

While no one can force reconciliation, the problem with blanket amnesty was that it was a waving of a magic wand, letting everyone off the hook without cost.  No one had to deal with their own issues much less the issues of those they had hurt.  No one had to say “I wronged you” and essentially it was forgiveness for nothing as the forgiven didn’t even have to demonstrate remorse.  The entire film is an examination of what it means to forgive.  They do so for the sake of the community, for the chance to move forward.

“Any step we take moving towards light, coming back to who you were before…being part of the community is not going to be easy.” –John Caulker

Terry follows Caulker as he goes from village to village convincing the people to engage in these healing conversations.  In the opening sequence, a woman told of how she was raped by 15 men, one of whom was her uncle.  After she told her story, she brought him in front of the group.  He told his story, then asked for her forgiveness.  And she forgave him.  They held hands, sang, and danced as a part of the ceremony.  This isn’t a case of holding hands and singing kumbayah around a campfire, but doing the real work of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The process began with confession in the presence of the community.  Such public confession was not about naming and shaming, but bringing sin to light so that everyone knew.  As such, they had to create a sacred and safe space for this to take place.  Even for those confessing, as they carry the guilt and shame, living in the darkness of their deeds, feeling ever marginalized, as if all fingers pointed at them.

Confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation were only the beginning.  Reconciliation is the restoration to right relationship, but that doesn’t mean that trust was instantly restored, that memories were easily forgotten, and that guilt had been washed away.  But it was an initial step allowing them to be able to come together.  From there they could spend time with one another and bridges had the opportunity to be (re-)built.

Fambul_tokNot everyone forgives.  Some want to do to their abusers what was done to them.  Some people freely admit that they can’t live alongside some of the men who perpetrated crimes against their village.  Stories are inconvenient reminders of past wrongs.  If, in the hearing, something nags at your conscience, forgiveness and reconciliation haven’t been achieved.  It takes time to work through it thoroughly.  Haven’t specifically forgiven because the heart remembers the details which is why the story telling, the sharing of those details of hurt (and the abuser hearing those details) is so important.  They can share specifically how they were hurt, how it impacted them, and the hearer knows what they are specifically forgiven for.  Some relationships or abuse situations may never find resolution fully.

It is said that not forgiving is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  Forgiveness is letting go of the poison, releasing them from the control they had over how you live.  Fifty five story circle bonfires had been conducted, with over 600 people testifying before over 20,000 of their neighbors, at a cost of $1M dollars.

Fambul Tok is a hard movie to watch.  It wasn’t filmed in dramatic fashion.  There are no exaggerated blood effects.  Just story after story of atrocity and having to witness the pain of the telling and the hearing, but to be heard and known is the point.  To everything there is an end and the people were looking for a way forward to be able to eat from the same bowl again.  The mystery of forgiveness is profound and there is healing to be found in it.