Fambul Tok: A Documentary Film About the Power of Forgiveness
Victims and perpetrators of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war come together for the first time in an unprecedented program of tradition-based truth-telling and forgiveness ceremonies. Through reviving their ancient practice of fambul tok (family talk), Sierra Leoneans are building sustainable peace at the grass-roots level – succeeding where the international community’s post-conflict efforts failed. Filled with lessons for the West, this film explores the depths of a culture that believes that true justice lies in redemption and healing for individuals – and that forgiveness is the surest path to restoring dignity and building strong communities.
Fambul Tok tells the story of healing in post-conflict Sierra Leone through the intimate stories of perpetrators and victims, including:
- Esther and Joseph – family members who were caught in the horrors of the war. At age 12 Esther was captured by rebels, and raped by 15 men. Among them was her uncle, Joseph. He, too, had been caught by the rebels and ordered to rape Esther – or be killed.
- Sahr and Nyumah – best friends whose lives were forever changed by the conflict. Rebel forces turned the two boys on each other, forcing Nyumah to beat his best friend so severely that he crippled him – and then forcing him to cut the throat of his best friend’s father.
- The villagers of Foendor and Tamba Joe, the native son who killed and beheaded 17 members of his own clan.
Our guide through these stories, and across the landscape of one of the poorest nations in the world, is John Caulker, a Sierra Leonean who has a vision of peace for his country. He is the creator and director of Fambul Tok, an unprecedented grass-roots reconciliation program that brings perpetrators and victims face-to-face in truth-telling and forgiveness ceremonies — an initiative which steps into the void left by failed international efforts to create peace and justice in the wake of the country’s eleven-year-long civil war. Caulker believes Fambul Tok is his country’s only hope. He has given his life to the program – moving out of his long-time career as a human rights activist and committing himself to the work of a peacebuilder.
In Fambul Tok, these stories of forgiveness and reconciliation are woven to paint a vivid portrait of post-conflict healing in Sierra Leone, seen through the lens of family, friends and community. The film explores a culture of forgiveness that is nearly incomprehensible to a Western mindset – a culture that values the restoration of relationships and the wholeness of community rather than measures of punishment and retribution.
As the stories of the central characters develop, we witness bonfires where victims and perpetrators come together, surrounded by their communities, to testify about crimes – to acknowledge responsibility and to ask for forgiveness. We see ceremonies that have not been performed since before the war – cleansing rituals for victims and perpetrators, as well as the pouring of libations to ancestors, to ask their blessings on the community’s attempts to reconcile.
We learn about the war itself – through interviews with survivors, local journalists and the use of archival footage. Understanding the horrors of this war – and the toll it took on Sierra Leone’s culture of unity – illumines the magnitude of Sierra Leoneans’ willingness to forgive and the desire for reconciliation.
We experience the countless hours of work that go into creating Fambul Tok conversations and ceremonies, as John and his team of volunteers cover miles and miles of destroyed roads and single-lane jungle footpaths. As they reach out to communities devastated by the war, where victims and perpetrators often live virtually side by side, avoiding contact, living life in an uneasy, post-conflict holding pattern where no one discusses what happened in the past.
We are present in the most intimate of moments – at the bonfire where Esther tells her story and pulls her uncle out of the crowd to hear his confession and apology; at the dramatic meeting between Sahr and Nyumah, the first time they have spoken in 17 years, when a haunted Nyumah admits to killing his best friend’s father; on the country-wide search for Tamba Joe, with one of his former classmates, sent by Foendor’s elders to find Joe and bring him back to the village. And we wait with the people of Foendor on the night of the bonfire where they hope to see their native son return and apologize for what he has done.
We also witness the healing effect of Fambul Tok – revisiting villages months after they have held bonfires and cleansing ceremonies to see perpetrators and victims now living and working side by side. We visit community farms that have sprung up as a result of Fambul Tok – a reflection of the community’s desire to find ways to continue working together, building the bonds of reconciliation that have been newly forged. We discover a culture being reborn.
All these stories are seen through the eyes of Sierra Leoneans, who often repeat a local saying – “There is no bad bush to throw away a bad child,” meaning that even bad members of the community are needed and must be rehabilitated for the community to thrive. We learn from village chiefs and “mommy queens” (women leaders), from elders and youth, victims and perpetrators, about a culture that values the wholeness of community, that defines peace as being able to eat from one bowl, as one family.
Our crew has been given the remarkable privilege of being the only film crew allowed access to these events. We have not approached this film as Westerners bearing Western norms of crime and punishment, expecting Sierra Leoneans to “prove” to us that forgiveness is possible, to “prove” that their methods of justice are viable. We are unabashedly committed to exploring this story through the hearts and lives of Sierra Leoneans themselves. We believe that the West has long looked at Africa as a continent that needs to be “fixed” by the international community, too often ignoring the answers that Africans themselves bring to solving their own problems.
Fambul Tok provides insight into the answers that can be found in post-conflict African countries for creating sustainable peace. With its intimate exploration of a powerful grass-roots program created and led by Sierra Leoneans themselves, the film raises questions about the international community’s efforts in Africa to create peace through Western-based traditions of crime and punishment – and searches for answers in African traditions which are based on cultural norms of confession, forgiveness and restorative justice.
Fambul Tok challenges the neo-colonial concept that Africa needs to be “saved” by the West, and explores community-based traditions as a viable form of building sustainable peace, that have proven – in Sierra Leone – to be more successful than Western efforts to heal divided communities. And we hope it encourages individuals and communities in other parts of Africa and the West to engage in the kind of grass-roots transformation that leads to peace.return to top of page