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A protest in front of a UN envoy (Photo: Pewee Flomoku)

Directed by
Gini Reticker
Produced by
Abigail E. Disney
Released by Balcony Releasing
USA. 72 min. Not Rated

Just when movie goers may be emotionally overwhelmed about brutal violence in Africa—genocide, child soldiers, blood diamonds, rape—comes the good news. Pray the Devil Back to Hell is the inspiring story of how one of the continent’s worst and longest civil wars was ended by a disparate group of determined women working together.

Liberia had suffered under unstable and autocratic government since 1980, but over the next 20 years the coups and counter coups deteriorated into civil wars that were boundless in their ruthlessness, plummeting to a nadir under the horrific leadership of Charles Taylor, now on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Director Gini Reticker, whose previous public television reportage has focused on women taking matters into their own hands in many fields, virtually reinvents the on-screen definition of heroism during wartime through the film’s centerpiece, the separate recollections of six remarkable women. They introduce themselves in terms of how each came of age in this violent storm and experienced a personal epiphany: enough was enough.

Leymah Gbowee’s recall of how she was led by the Bible is worth more than any evangelist preaching about the value of religion in politics. Huddling with other women in a church against the gale of battle outside, praying for an answer, she came across the Book of Esther, the story of the young Jewish queen who challenged a Persian king when her people’s lives were threatened. From what is usually considered a quintessentially Jewish story, Gbowee was inspired to first organize a Christian women’s group for peace, and invited Muslim women. Asatu Bah Kenneth remembers coming uncomfortably to the first meeting in a church but was then reassured, and the first Christian and Muslim women’s coalition in the country was born, a significant achievement anywhere in the world. They then reached out to all women, finding a fruitful base among mothers who were terrified that their young sons would be recruited by the many armies.

For a movement largely ignored by the international press, director Reticker was able to locate a wide variety of local footage and other evidence that vividly illustrates the women’s memories, and she smoothly integrates the interviews with the archival film. The as-it-happened footage belies the women’s individual modesty and self-effacement, which is very unusual compared to most films where individuals tend to exaggerate their significant actions at historic moments. Particularly notable are the activities from 1994 on of the matronly Etweda “Sugars” Cooper. Like the Mothers of Plaza De Mayo in Argentina, she organized constant protests, with women picketing and marching at prominent locations.

The chronology and see-saw control between various factions whose names are Orwellian mockeries of their behaviorNational Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and so on—are a bit confusing to follow by their various acronyms, as well as the ups and downs and downs and downs of the women’s agonizing travails. But the heroines make clear that the affiliations or political loyalties didn’t matter—to them all the men were egomaniacal thugs committing atrocities on civilians. Their determination and joint cooperation never wavering, they traveled to Ghana in 2003 and locked the recalcitrant negotiators inside until they came out with a peace agreement.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell concludes with a quick look at the country’s gratitude towards women by turning to them to run the country, including Asatu Bah Kenneth, now the country’s Deputy Chief of Police. In 1976, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan won the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting peace in Northern Ireland. The women of Liberia deserve the prize for not only facing down an apocalypse but actually achieving a peaceful settlement in their homeland. Consider seeing this film your vote towards the prize. Nora Lee Mandel
November 7, 2008



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