Reviews

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Pray the Devil Back to Hell vividly conveys the pain endured and resistance mounted by women of diverse backgrounds and faiths during Liberia's civil war.


Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Director: Gini Reticker
Cast: Leymah Gbowee, Janet Johnson Bryant, Etweda Cooper, Vaiba Flomo
Distributor: Fork Films
Rated: NR
Year: 2008
US DVD release date: 2009-11-10
Website

"Open your eyes and then close your eyes and dream of a world where babies no longer die by the roadside, where women are no longer brutally raped with impunity, where the U.N. is going into villages to find women from rural areas to sit at the peace table, where President Obama goes to Liberia and says, 'I want to consult with the rural women first.' Do you see that future?" Accepting the Profile in Courage Award at the John F. Kennedy Library this year, Leymah Gbowee is at once proud and humble, inspiring and instructive. Using herself to embody the struggle for peace still being waged by the Women’s Peace Initiative in her native Liberia, Gbowee is determined to make these many voices heard.

Gbowee's speech is one of a couple of extras on the DVD of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, released on 10 November. Gini Reticker’s low-key, affecting documentary traces the Women’s Peace Initiative's evolution, recounted by founders and active members, including Gbowee. She describes her first inklings of the movement at the film's start: “I am five months pregnant,” she recalls. “My son is three and my daughter is two.” As she speaks, a handheld camera follows crowds of refugees, leaving their Liberian village -- visibly distressed and in a hurry.

“So, under rains of bullets, we leave the house and we walk for, like, seven hours to my parents’ house. And there was hell on earth.” As she tells a story about her son’s response to the chaos, the frame is hectic and unfocused, an occasional face turning to look at the camera, weary and sad. Leymah’s son, she says, wished for a piece of donut, a request so simple and sweet, and yet, so utterly impossible to fulfill. “The anger built up again,”” she says, “The pain was there.”

The film vividly conveys the pain endured by women of diverse backgrounds and faiths, their stories told in thoughtful interviews and sometimes harrowing footage drawn from the many years of Liberia's civil war. In 1989, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) assassinated Liberian dictator Samuel Doe and took over the government; warring factions varied in name and number. By 2002, the sides were using similar tactics -- a group of warlords who called themselves LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and Taylor’s private army (ironically titled “The Anti-Terrorist Unit”) were using similar tactics to compel citizens into compliance: kidnapping children to drug and deploy as soldiers, looting villages, raping women, and marauding over the countryside, as lawless and brutal as their victims were quietly resilient.

Leymah says her inspiration came in a dream: “Someone was actually telling me to get the women of the church together,” she remembers, “to pray for peace.” When she did, more and more women began coming to meetings, including Asatu Bah Kenneth, Assistant Director of the Liberian National Police. Thrilled by the women’s energy and dedication, she spoke passionately, and identified herself upfront as “the only Muslim in the church,” and was immediately accepted (“They said ‘Oh hallelujah,’ they were so happy that I was there”). This would be a coalition of women -- all with one goal, peace.

Leymah and her fellow interviewees describe their experiences in spiritual language. “I got baptized into the women’s movement,” she says. Journalist Janet Bryant-Johnson recalls seeing women living in displaced persons camps, struggling literally to find food for one meal for their children, joining in a march in their area. They gathered to demonstrate -- sitting at a fish market for days on end, dozens of women dressed in white to signify their uniform purpose -- and they devised strategies.

If Taylor could appear in a church to sway his followers and pronounce his superiority (“He could,” says Leymah, “pray the devil back to hell”) and the LURD members would got to mosque to recruit new members and reassure themselves of their rightness, the women too would use institutions to get their work done. As Leymah puts it, women in church would “pressurize the pastors and the bishops, who would pressurize the leader,” and women could also “pressurize the imams [who would] pressurize the warlords also.” Along with their public protests, the women undertake another campaign in their homes, “pressurizing” their husbands to take action, or at least to refuse to take up arms.

Secretary Vaiba Flomo explains, “One way or another, you have power as a woman and that power is to deny your sex. And tell him the reason you are going to deny it.”

The women’s movement famously helped to push Taylor and his opponents into peace talks in 2004, in Accra, Ghana. The women raised money to send an unofficial delegation of their own “to raise awareness and start a demonstration there,” one leading to one of the film’s most memorable moments. Seeing the men (world leaders, warlords, and hangers-on alike) treat the talks as a “vacation” (enjoying their hotel rooms and access to fine food and beverages), the women stage a sit-down in the hallway outside a meeting room, blocking the men’s way, to insist they come up with real solutions before they head off to restaurants and poolsides. “The Peace Hall,” reports a journalist, “has been seized by General Leymah and her troops.”

She recounts an attempt by security guards to remove them, even to arrest them for “obstructing justice.” Leymah says, “Those words: it was like you took gas and just pour it on an open flame. I just went wild.” By this she means she stood up and announced she would make it easy to arrest her, by stripping off her clothes, most definitely illegal for a woman to do. The results appear in the film, as Nigerian General Abubakar schools the warlord who tries to step over and abuse the women blocking his way: “Go and sit down,” Leymah remembers him saying, “If you were a real man, you wouldn’t be killing your people… Because you aren’t a real man, we will treat you like a boy.”

As recounted in the documentary Iron Ladies of Liberia, the women’s movement led not only to peace talks, but eventually, to Taylor’s exile (he is now on trial for war crimes at the Hague) and the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president. Such an outcome is unspeakably heartening: the women’s peace movement, propelled by ordinary citizens, changed what was possible in Liberia.

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