People

Sara Terry: On film & forgiveness

Sara Terry: Courtesy of Henry Jacobson
Sara Terry: Courtesy of Henry Jacobson

To some come turning points in life that shatter old ways of living; these can be wars, death of a loved one, betrayal, financial ruin or natural disasters that wipe out histories in a minute to mention just a handful of catalysts that shake our very foundations.

There was “something” in the life of journalist Sara Terry, that so broke her she says she was unable to write or think of words for several years.

“Something happened in my life where words failed. I shut down, stopped talking and picked up a camera. That began as a way to take little fragments, pieces of memory of the person who was so lost. That lasted a few years and then I began to see the camera was telling me my own stories,” explains Terry of her shift from written journalism with the Christian Science Monitor in England and magazines to photo journalism and the documenting of lives in the aftermath or wars.

Out from under the black shadow that had engulfed her life, Terry has shifted 180 degrees with the release of her first film, Fambul Tok (Family Talk), set in Sierra Leone post civil war.

The film was screened recently in Ubud during the Global Social Change Film Festival and Institute week long event. Terry joined panels and discussed her film during the festival.

Tracking the works of peace and reconciliation activist, John Caulker, Fambul Tok introduces viewers to communities who suffered horrendous violence at the hands of neighbors and family; introduces viewers to communities and perpetrators who remembering the ancient traditions of Fambul Tok achieve forgiveness and a drawing back into the fold of those who have murdered and maimed friends and family under threat from the rebels.

The film is beautifully shot, the tenderness, grief and guilt of victims and perpetrators bleed through Terry’s frames, blending in the act of forgiveness. This forgiveness is best witnessed when best friends, estranged since the war, again come together. One of the friends had, under threat of death from the rebels, slit the throat of his best friend’s father, then beat his best friend half to death. In Terry’s film we are graced to see an apology given and accepted and two dear friends fall in love once again.

“It was really like that. Watching them stroke each other’s faces and rebuild their friendship. They are again inseparable,” says Terry of the extraordinary power of apology and forgiveness she filmed first hand.

The messages in Fambul Tok should be heard by all, should be essential viewing for every teenager; messages that should be heard in Poso and Maluku here in Indonesia.

Fambol Tok has already been used as a tool against school bullying in a US school, explains Terry, who says students watched the film then began the process of apology and forgiveness, of genuine reconciliation.

Her first film, Fambul Tok grew out of Terry’s passion for documenting the aftermath or wars, a passion that was born during her five year project in Bosnia capturing the returning spirit of people and communities that had been immolated by war and genocide during the Bosnian war that, like in Sierra Leone set neighbor against neighbor, village against village. The war ran from 1992 to 1995, killing and dislocating millions.

“This was the first genocide since World War 2. I was stunned the international community would wrap it after five years [of post war rebuilding until 2000]. The short sightedness of this I thought absurd. At the end of World War 2 we had the Marshall Plan active for ages and tons of money. We now think with the last guns stopped ‘it’s all over — let’s get on with it,” says Terry who arrived in Bosnia in 2000 when she traveled to the ravaged European country to “see if I could tell their story [of war’s aftermath] in photos.”

It was a gustsy step for a woman who had never been to that part of the world before, but her empathy with the people led to five years of photographing their new history and became the award winning book, Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace.

“At that time in the US the word ‘aftermath’ was not often used,” says Terry of how far removed from the detritus of wars the international media had grown, covering “only half the story.”

In her work Terry provides the other half of the story, validating for the victims of war and genocide that these things happened and the wounds don’t heal with the ceasefire.

“I felt that how media covers conflict tells only half the story ignoring that in the aftermath of war the light shines on our humanity — there is sorrow, but our aim is to explore what it is to live again. If we don’t hold up these stories [of redemption and forgiveness] we condemn ourselves to the world by defining only our inhumanity,” says Terry who was one of the only journalists in Bosnia by 2004.

Following her journey into capturing the rebirth of Bosnia on film, Terry established the Aftermath Foundation, now in its fifth year of granting funding to journalists courageous and compassionate enough to document life after war.

“We produce a book each year on this. And there is a change in the conversation. I now hear photographers describe themselves as Aftermath photographers [rather than as war photographers]. There is a growing huge respect from the media. The most important reason for doing this is that what we shine a light on grows; if we only shine that light on war, what grows?, asks Terry.

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