Finding Forgiveness in Africa
Ever since I read, as a child, about Corrie ten Boom forgiving a Nazi guard in The Hiding Place, I've been a sucker for forgiveness stories—especially in the movies. The Green Mile, The Straight Story, The Spitfire Grill, The Mission, and even the end of Spider-Man 3, where Peter/Spidey forgives the Sandman/Flint Marko for killing his beloved Uncle Ben.
But the most powerful stories of forgiveness are the real ones as often depicted in documentaries. Martin Doblmeier's The Power of Forgiveness and Laura Waters Hinson's As We Forgive are both near the top of the list—especially the latter, which explores reconciliation in Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 genocide. I was in Rwanda two years ago and saw some of these stories myself.
We can now add Fambul Tok (First Run Features), which just released to DVD, to the list of "forgiveness documentaries." The film features victims and perpetrators coming together in the wake of Sierra Leone's civil war, which featured some of the same types of atrocities as the Rwanda genocide and the horrific methods of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army in other parts of Africa.
But such reconciliation doesn't come easily or naturally. It takes hard work on the part of peacemakers. While Sierra Leone had established a Truth & Reconciliation Commission (much like South Africa at the end of apartheid), and a number of warlords were tried and convicted in a special court, some folks believed that true reconciliation and forgiveness could not be court- or state-mandated, but had to occur at the grassroots level—in neighborhoods and villages, with perpetrators and victims meeting face-to-face.
The film, directed by Sara Terry, focuses especially on John Caulker, a man who takes the role of peacemaker seriously. He travels around the country organizing "fambul tok" (which means "family talk")—gatherings around bonfires where victims have an opportunity to confront their perpetrators, and perpetrators have a chance to confess and apologize. It's moving to see so many perpetrators who are willing to stand before their victims (many of whom are the sole survivors of entire families that were murdered) and the whole community, confessing their crimes. The desired end is forgiveness, and sometimes that comes quickly, sometimes it does not. That's part of Caulker's hard work—to seek reconciliation between the parties, so that they can live together in peace and community. The meetings are similar to the gacaca court system of community justice that began 10 years ago in Rwanda.
It's a powerful thing to see two parties reconciled, especially after such heinous crimes as rape, torture, and beheadings of family members. But what the fambul tok model lacks (that was clear in both Doblmeier's and Hinson's films) is a thoroughly Christian model of forgiveness. Fambul tok claims to be nonpartisan process that aims to respect the traditions of the communities and cultures where it works, and Caulker is clearly doing a holy and spiritual work in encouraging reconciliation. But God or Jesus are never mentioned. There is never any talk of forgiving because we have been forgiven. There is no discussion of the idea that we're all sinners in need of forgiveness, victims as well as perpetrators. The only time someone mentions God is when one of the perpetrators says that "God has the final say" in such matters.
After reconciling with her perpetrator, one victim says forgiveness also means forgetting. No, it does not; it's asking far too much to ask a victim to forget being raped, or watching a man behead dozens of family members. Who can possibly forget such horrors? But forgiveness is possible.