March 9, 2009

Taking It Home: Pray the Devil Back to Hell

As Margaret Mead famously stated:
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Today in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, International Women's Day will be celebrated with the country's premiere screening of Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Anywhere else this would simply be an inspiring and appropriate event; in Liberia it signifies a fateful union of history and impossible hope, something akin to an alternate inauguration in which Barack Obama would not only be sworn in on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but on the very same day as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic address.

On this date just six years ago, Liberia was in the midst of a horrifying and destabilizing civil war. The capital of Monrovia was threatened on all sides by rival militias eager to oust megalomaniac Charles Taylor, and it appeared the situation would resolve itself in the natural way: brutal bloodshed followed by a tenuous transitional government.

And then something bizarre happened. A group of women staged a type of coup on their own terms, essentially ending the war without firing a single shot. Two years later, they helped elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the new President - the first (and so far, only) woman to ever be elected to the position on the entire continent of Africa.

This is the story told in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and its premiere in Monrovia today - to be attended by President Johnson-Sirleaf as well as many other Heads of State - will be preceded by a ceremony honoring the courage, leadership, and tireless work of not only the women in the film, but of all women who have fought and continue to fight for justice around the globe.

The documentary (which won the award for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and was later shortlisted for an Oscar nomination) is as shocking as it is uplifting. How could a group of women end a war and disarm a nation by simply being stubborn in their demands for peace? How could that actually work in a country where women are routinely abused and mothers are killed by their own young sons as part of their initiation as child soldiers?

Pray the Devil Back to Hell offers no easy answers to those questions, not because of any flaws in the filmmaking (though there are some) but because the circumstances of the peaceful resolution seem so impossibly simple. These women said "enough" and the war ended. They turned the country upside down and sent a historic ripple throughout Africa.

Is there more to it than that? Yes, but the other variables (international support, internal disputes among the rebel armies, etc.) don't seem to have been nearly as essential to achieving peace as the stalwart work of these women. Indeed, the driving factor was the shameful scolding handed down by the mothers of Liberia, as if to say, "Stop horsing around, boys - someone's going to get hurt!"

I don't mean to be patronizing; this was a dangerous and extremely complex situation that is still difficult to understand, and for a country that has such a fateful relationship to the United States, most of us know surprisingly little about Liberia. To that end, Pray the Devil Back to Hell is actually a bit lacking. You could leave knowing almost nothing about the country's history prior to 1989, save for a brief text introduction in the first minute.

But the documentary isn't meant to be an extended history lesson, and if you know anything about Liberia or about non-violent protest in general, you should come away with a profound sense of hope. The country has yet to fully recover - both physically and mentally - from the years of strife, but the peace has surprisingly lasted long enough in this African country to see its female president attend the premiere of the film in its capital city, and that is an astounding actuality.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell will soon screen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where civil war has claimed the lives of over 4 million people since 1998. Whether that nightmare can be
ended by a group of idealistic women remains to be seen, but sometimes hope gets its foot in the door and the world changes.

It took the women of Liberia years of thankless campaigning
to achieve their mission (with no guarantee of success, it should be noted), and today they can celebrate with a kind of joy that few people will ever experience.

What did you take home?


  1. Wow - this is fascinating. Thanks for educating me by featuring this film. Sadly, the only thing I knew about Liberia was it was founded to some extent by ex-slaves, and that the capital Monrovia was named after U.S. President James Monroe ... I definitely have not understood anything of its history since 1989.

    I am truly astonished and moved that the efforts of these women has caused such fundamental change. If only this could be the new "natural way" for many countries in conflict!
    I like your phrase about hope getting in the door. Definitely seems like a must-see film.

  2. Thanks. It will probably pop up on PBS in a few years or referenced here and there, but I doubt many people will see it. An Oscar nomination might have helped it out, but all of the final nominees were worthy (actually I didn't see The Garden).

    There was a Q & A session with members of the Liberian community here after this screening. They made sure to clarify that Liberia was NOT founded by former U.S. slaves. Saying so, according to them, is a slight to the native Africans (they avoid the term "indigenous" because it creates unnecessary distinctions) that were already living in that part of West Africa. Apparently it was just a broad region there and the former slaves helped the natives "settle" the land that became Liberia.

    Whether that can be considered "founding" or not, I don't know. But I understand that they are trying to stray from the idea that slaves brought back leadership and democratic ideals from the U.S. that "civilized" the area.

    Apparently there is still a lot of tension around this issue, and it at a deeper level it continues to play a role in the conflicts that have happened in Liberia.

    Anyway, it really would be great to see the women's model attempted elsewhere, but part of still me wonders if it worked so well mostly because it was a surprise. Warring parties in other countries (DRC) might preemptively try to prevent any demonstration like this.


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