“She functions better under pressure.” As a makeup artist prepares the newly elected president of Liberia for her 16 January 2006 inauguration speech, she notes that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sits quietly, contemplating the unknowable future of a nation that has endured some 14 years of civil war. The government she has inherited is rife with corruption, the economy is mired in a $3.7 billion dollar debt, and citizens are anxiously anticipating immediate change. It’s hard to imagine more pressure.
And yet, says journalist Siatta Scott Johnson, “For a moment, we forgot all the troubles she has ahead of her.” At the start of Iron Ladies of Liberia, premiering tonight on PBS’ Independent Lens, Sirleaf invites her people to trust in her. “We know that your vote was a vote for change, we have heard you loudly,” she announces on her inauguration day. “The days of the imperial presidency… are over.” A little over a year later, in June 2007, former Liberian president Charles Taylor, goes on trial at the Hague for war crimes, with a verdict anticipated in 2010: “God willing,” he promises his followers, “I will be back.” “Liberians are a strange kind of people,” says Sirleaf. “The very people who harm us are the ones we pretend to love.”
Sirleaf is well aware of the lingering support for the former government, not least because she hears it from Edwin Snowe, Speaker of the House and married to one of Taylor’s daughters. A Harvard-educated economist and grandmother of eight who had previously been exiled to Nigeria, Sirleaf appoints a cabinet and looks to the future. As Johnson describes the process, “She’s appointing a lot of women.” These include Antoinette Sayeh as Minister of Finance, Minister of Gender Vabah Kazaku Gayflor, Minister of Justice Frances Johnson-Morris, and Beatrice Munah Sieh, the National Chief of Police. “I want to prove a point,” says Sieh, filling the frame in her crisp uniform, “that women can be trusted and placed in dangerous positions and even do better.” Still, she admits, her force is operating with minimal resources. “The police,” she notes, “do not have guns, they do not have handcuffs or vehicles… not even paper to write on.”
As the movie documents, Sirleaf and her “iron ladies” face any number of such obstacles, and yet, they approach their work with resolve and ingenuity. The film, co-directed by Johnson and Daniel Junge, extols the women’s work, and Sirleaf makes use of the camera as she negotiates with various representatives throughout the first year of her presidency.
With some 85% of the population unemployed and 75% living on less than a dollar a day, Sirleaf must also contend with over half a million returning refugees and internally displaced people, as well as the demands of a striking military. Claiming they have not received back pay or pensions, the troops create a ruckus in the streets of Monrovia. Sirleaf deflates the confrontation by bringing them inside for conversation. “I must listen to them in a way that says, ‘I want to hear you,’” she explains. “It’s an old ma way of listening.” (Repeatedly, she uses the camera as a kind of confidant, understanding its usefulness as a promotional tool.) After she hears the troops’ representatives, she explicates her government’s constraints. Not only is money short, but the “people in the villages, the true victims of the war,” also need help, and they were previously abused by the Armed Forces of Liberia. Sirleaf insists that the military leaders recognize “the poor people out there that you have impoverished.” The group’s leaders nod and agree. The “old ma” prevails.
Along with such face-to-face negotiations, the film shows Sirleaf as she also contends with the nation’s daunting debt. As she deals with the U.S. (owed some $391 million), Sirleaf also entertains interest by the Chinese, looking to extend their influence in Africa. Following a parade that honors the visit of Chinese president Hu Jintao, Sirleaf appears meeting with George Soros, who advises her to keep both superpowers aware of the other’s offers, so they might be inclined to compete for Liberia’s business and resources. The film suggests this competition is a good thing for Liberia (during Sirleaf’s visit to the U.S., George Bush cancels Liberia’s debt, though the IMF and the World Bank are still waiting to be paid).
Essentially following the tone set by its sanguine subject, Iron Ladies of Liberia makes a subtle argument. If it doesn’t make the case outright that “women” are by constitution effective leaders, it does insinuate that Sirleaf and her appointees grasp what’s at stake. Showing the difficulties facing Sirleaf in impressionistic, unforgettable images—kids playing in garbage dumps, demonstrations in the streets—the documentary keeps focused on the president’s good intentions and efforts, filtered through her indomitable personality. “Basically,” she says, “I’m a very private person.” As the camera follows her on what seems perpetual public display, she recalls her former life, shopping for groceries like any other citizen. “There are times I wish I could be the old me.” But still, the film suggests, Sirleaf is built for this new life, functioning under pressure.