After thirteen years of civil war, the women of Liberia were fed up, and banded together to demand peace. This is their story.
Dir. Gini Reticker, 2008, 71 min
Pray the Devil Back to Hell features the kind of story that seems too ridiculously uplifting and inspirational to be real. And yet it is, and the film mostly carries itself on the strength of that story. It has no stylistic ambition whatsoever, but it gets away with it. This is a good tale told well, and sometimes that’s enough.
At the beginning of the 21st Century, Liberia was in dire straights. Founded by freed American slaves (hence its name), it was one of the few African states untouched by European imperialism, and was relatively well-off for most of its history. But then a military coup in 1980 threw the country into chaos, eventually devolving into a civil war in 1989. That conflict ended in 1997… only for a second civil war to spark up in 1999.
The government of dictator Charles Taylor clashed with forces under rebel warlords, with both sides committing every atrocity in the book: indoctrinating child soldiers, raiding villages for supplies, indiscriminately killing and raping civilians, and worse. A formerly stable economy plunged into disarray, while two hundred and fifty thousand people died, and millions more were displaced.
By 2002, after decades of fighting, the Liberian citizenry had enough, but there seemed to be no avenue to peace. It was in this dark hour that the women of the country emerged as a potent force for activism. Under social worker Leymah Gbowee, Christian and Muslim women pooled their efforts into a nonviolent movement. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace arranged sit-ins, marches, rallies, and eventually, taking a page from Lysistrata, a sex strike, to agitate the warring men to reach a ceasefire.
At first ignored by Taylor and the warlords, the organization grew in size and strength until they finally wrangled him and the rebels into appearing at a peace talk in Ghana in 2003. This conference led to Taylor’s eventual resignation, exile, and arrest by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity (his verdict will be handed down on April 26th of this year). Control of Liberia passed to a transitional government, and the efforts of Gbowee and her colleagues culminated in the 2006 election of Ellen Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state. Sirleaf and Gbowee would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is the kind of rousing girl power stuff that makes you want to do a fist-pump. When the men of their country were embroiled in petty warring, Gbowee and the WLMAP stepped up to assert their rights, and the rights of all the common people. They accomplished what no one else could, what even seemed impossible. Not only is this a triumph of feminism, but of religion, as Christians and Muslims were able to put aside their differences and unite. Sure, this telling of the story is somewhat simplified and whitewashed; Gbowee has openly admitted elsewhere to suffering deep personal problems, including alcoholism, during this time. But if the filmmakers wanted to ignore those issues and focus on the positives, then that’s their prerogative.
Oddly enough, my biggest problem with the film is one that crops up a lot for me when watching docs about Africa. It’s the subtitles. Whenever an African speaking English appears in a documentary, they’ll likely be subtitled, no matter how clearly they can speak. It’s particularly noticeable in this film. English is Liberia’s official language, and no one featured in this movie speaks anything else. Sure, they all talk with accents of varying degrees of thickness, but I had no trouble understanding them. I even covered up the subtitles with my hand at times and still didn’t have any problems. I think filmmakers need to start trusting their audiences more, because this is just a teensy bit racist.
Some groups are screening Pray the Devil Back to Hell for women in other war-torn nations, such as Sudan, to show them what they can do if they put their mind to it. Indeed, this movie is a crowning example of positive propaganda, a feminist rallying cry of the highest order. It’s so good at this that I can easily forgive the film’s simplicity and straightforwardness. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and that’s all it needs to do. Especially when that goal is so admirable and necessary.