There was no more fighting, but there was also no unity. Was this truly what peace was like? Native activist John Caulker wasn’t happy with this lack of community in Sierra Leone and decided to start a grass-roots movement branded "fambul tok." Translated to “family talk,” this ancient tradition finds villagers confronting a criminal member of their society in front of a campfire. They speak about what he/she has done, the importance of that person as a member of their settlement, and grants them forgiveness. Caulker travels from village to village organizing these ceremonies, and first-time filmmaker Sara Terry is in tow to capture the momentous meetings, while also giving the program leader the opportunity to fill viewers in on the war and his intent. “Fambul Tok” is a hit-and-miss compilation of this journey, a movie at its strongest when focusing on the titular conversations and suffering when giving Caulker too strong of a spotlight.
The key to “Fambul Tok” is obviously the confrontations, a happening so interesting that it begs to be the subject of a movie. Terry quietly observes from a distance with a trusty wide lens, the people barely lit by the raging fire in the center. When she allows people to relate to the camera it works wonderfully, however, the numerous dialogues by Caulker do not. Don’t get us wrong, his work is important, but he’s just not as fascinating as his program is, a notion that he’d likely agree with. Any focus on him after he explains the mission statement of fambul tok is an unnecessary road bump.
Caulker’s efforts to bring together his countrymen has resulted in over six hundred people coming clean and being accepted back into their villages, with total expenses coming in around $1 million. This is in stark contrast to the victories held by the “special courts,” which clocks in at about ten convicted and over $200 million spent. Patching up severely damaged relationships in a different, open way is certainly a great topic to build a movie around, and sometimes “Fambul Tok” does its subject justice. But at other moments, it misses the mark, resulting in an uneven film. [C+]