[18 April 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
General Butt Naked brushes his teeth. The first time you see him in The Redemption of General Butt Naked, he’s preparing for his day just like anyone else might: he spits into the sink, he sprays deodorant under his arms, and he puts on his pants. What’s striking about this diurnal business is that he is General Butt Naked. Or he was. Now, some 14 years after the civil war in Liberia, he goes by the name of Joshua Milton Blahyi. And he’s no longer a killer. He’s an evangelist preacher.
As you come to learn more about Blahyi’s former life, this first image becomes more unnerving. How could this monster, this notorious warlord—known for killing while naked and sending child soldiers and young men out to commit mayhem without their clothes, so as to terrify their victims and dramatize their presumption of power—now put on his own clothes and look so ordinary? How can he claim redemption?
This is the question that shapes the film. Again and again, Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion’s incredible film—airing 18 April on the Documentary Channel—poses it, in the reflections of Blahyi’s victims and in the faith articulated by his followers. Blahyi is the occasion for the film’s exploration of the very idea of redemption, of confession and forgiveness, of the past’s effects on the present and some imagined future.
“Everybody knows I’ve killed, everybody knows I’ve done evil,” Blahyi says. “The only thing they do not know is he depth, they do not know the amount. So, going to tell them is going to shock them.” He told his story to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia, convened in 2008, claiming that he and his men were responsible for the deaths of some 20,000 people. (The civil war ended in 2003, and an estimated 250,000 were killed.) Now, in 2010, the camera keeps close on Blahyi as he walks past a banner announcing the hearings and into the hall where he once testified, the angle low and handheld. The seats on either side of the aisle he walks, complete with red, white and blue bunting, recall a church, a site for reckoning and confession, a site for redemption. Bahyi’s voiceover continues—“That is the strength of evil, secrecy, denial”—as the camera adopts what might be his view, another banner that identifies the public hearing as an occasion for “Confronting Our Difficult Past for a Better Future.”
Blahyi sits in the witness stand, claiming that he has achieved such confrontation, that he’s remorseful for what he’s done, that he means to reconcile with his victims. Articulating the evils of the past, he says, is like “walking out of that wickedness.” The film cuts back to video of his testimony, calmly recalling numbers as you hear gasps from an unseen audience. The juxtaposition of images makes vivid the difficulty, the complexity, of reconciliation. Can words manage it? Can images be understood as evidence (as in a video of an assassination), and of what? Intention? Forced activity (as Blahyi says he now imposed on his soldiers)? “The fact that he made that statement,” says TRC Commissioner Gerald Coleman now, “I saw it as him expressing his deep responsibility for a process that may have led to the deaths of these kind of people.”
The Commissioner’s strained phrasing suggests that language rarely accounts for trauma, as this is reshaped by memory. “I just used to enjoy putting people in pain, yeah,” Blahyi says. The pleasure he describes sounds at once abject and abstract, utterly visceral and disconnected from his sense of self. In particular, he remembers shooting one of his own soldiers, a young man named David Johnson, called Senegal. Angry that his minion might have been lying to him, Blahyi recalls, “I didn’t see any ma… I didn’t see anyone.” He only acted, and that he seems to remember well: “I take out my magnum and blow his legs.” Cut to Senegal, in a wheelchair. He forgives his aggressor, apparently. Blahyi visits, pushes the wheelchair, shares memories: they look into the camera, and it’s impossible to read their faces. Where does the testimony—the evangelizing—begin and end? When and how do selves become fixed, or truthful, or are they ever fluid, elusive, and reconciling?
It appears that Blahyi has found a way to reframe such memories, now looking after a house full of converts, much as he used to oversee a house full of young killers. The house has rules posted on the wall—pointed to proudly by a believer—no alcohol, no smoking. Their beliefs shape a complicated present, in which his past evil now helps to make his present more emphatic.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the film also features interviews with Blahyi’s wife, Josie. She has her own memories—of meeting him, years after the war. Over their wedding photos, she describes her initial disinterest, but then, “I began to see the person he really is,” namely, earnest and compassionate, “fun to be with,” and, she adds, “I saw him to be a child of God.” Now, as he travels to evangelize, she’s restless and resentful, left alone with their children, gazing off screen. In this most mundane complaint, she speaks to many other histories, remembered and forgotten, the parents’ struggles turned into legacies left to children. Blahyi has found himself, so he says. As the film tracks the processes of reconciliation and redemption, as it questions truth and fiction, it finds few answers.