Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Film Review)

Reviewed by James Slone

(originally published by 2010)

Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president and warlord, was deposed in 2003. He is currently being tried in The Hague for 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder and mutilation of civilians (hacking off limbs and heads for example), abducting both adults and children to serve as laborers and soldiers, and using young girls and women as sex slaves. While most of these charges are for acts he committed in Sierra Leone, the way Taylor treated his own people wasn’t much better.

Elected to office in 1997, Taylor’s regime was mired in human rights abuses, including widespread use of torture and violence against civilians. He recruited child soldiers and put them to work terrorizing his population, allegedly using human sacrifice and cannibalism as psychological weapons against his political enemies. The Muslim rebels (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy or LURD) and warlords who fought against him weren’t any nicer, recruiting preteen soldiers, pumping them full of drugs and sending them on armed rampages where they raped and murdered thousands of civilians. War and rapine became facts of life, creating a huge flood of displaced refugees who trickled into Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.

Ginie Reticker’s documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is about women—mothers, daughters and wives, both Muslim and Christian—who finally reached their breaking point and decided to do something about it, channeling their moral outrage, anger and indignation into peaceful and democratic action against both Taylor and the LURD, action that contributed to the resignation of Taylor in 2003 and the election of the first woman president of an African nation, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in 2005.

Leymah Gbowee, interviewed extensively throughout the film, organized the Christian Women’s Initiative at her Lutheran church after experiencing an epiphany during a dream. The two-pronged Initiative would seek peace through both prayer and direct action. In an early controversial decision, Gbowee and other organizers concluded that Muslim women would also have to be included in their actions, since half the violence was being perpetrated by Muslim men.

Gbowee’s mission inspired Asatu Bah Kenneth, a Muslim police officer (also interviewed extensively), and she soon began to organize Muslim women for the cause. Some Muslims were initially reluctant to work side by side with Christians, but overcame their skepticism when they realized the only people they could find complete solidarity with were other women. In one organizer’s words, “Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?” Soon both Christian and Muslim women gathered in the thousands in the capital, all wearing white t-shirts advocating peace, to confront Taylor directly.

Their efforts initially went ignored by the government, but as they continued issuing press releases, protesting, blockading and calling out Taylor on his religious hypocrisy (he is a Christian), the international community, including the press, took notice, bringing a new front of outside pressure to bear on Taylor and the LURD. The women, despite setbacks and periods of despair—especially when the rebels seized most of the capital and brutalized the refugee camps—were eventually able to use international pressure to convince Taylor to engage in peace talks, negotiations that eventually ended with his resignation and arrest.

Reticker’s film, having only so much time to focus on its subject, tends to overemphasize the movement’s role in pushing Taylor out. International pressure, especially from the United States and Liberia’s West African neighbors, was crucial to driving a stake into the heart of the regime. In general, the film’s perspective is narrow, relying on the testimony of the top participants of the Women’s Peace Initiative, and doesn’t provide much outside political context. Audiences unaware of Liberia’s overall status then and now will come away with the view that the women were solely responsible for Taylor’s downfall and that everything’s looking up in Liberia now that he’s gone.

But the women’s movement was undoubtedly a central player, and the documentary effectively highlights their important contribution to ending the civil war. What they did was attract the attention of the world by embarrassing Taylor and the rebels, confronting them with their crimes right out in the open. Without their daring public challenges and media savvy, you never would have had the kind of international pressure required for removing Taylor. Without their direct action (in one scene they bravely block the exits of a peace conference attended by the nation’s top warlords), there probably wouldn’t be peace in Liberia.

The film shows that their efforts did not arise from a political ideology, but from the horrific conditions of their everyday lives. Women were constantly assaulted, beaten and raped; quite often, their assailants were armed preteen boys. As mothers, their situation was made more terrifying by the knowledge that their own children could be, and were, recruited to kill. In a country without infrastructure, schools, health care, women were left to their own defenses. They couldn’t expect men to do anything; most men were passive, complicit or active in perpetuating the violence. One strategy the women employed was a sex strike against their husbands and sex partners.

Despite the horror of the events these women describe, every one of them is tough, resilient and surprisingly good-humored about their work. Asatu Bah Kenneth, is a big jolly presence in her white police uniform, with an easy laugh and a lot of perspective. And her job was one of the more dangerous ones: informing the women’s movement of upcoming police actions. Any one of these women could have been arrested, tortured and killed at any time, but their desire for peace and contempt for the regime and the rebels made them a disciplined and fearless political force.

All of these women were able to see through a bad situation to a brighter world on the other side. Whether it was because of their religious backgrounds or some hidden reserve of moral strength I don’t know, but what they did was unimaginably heroic. And Liberia is better off today for it.

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