When producer Abigail E. Disney first approached director Gini Reticker in 2006 about documenting the Liberian women's peace movement, the country was in the terminal stages of a more than two-decade-long civil war. Disney and Reticker dealt with little security and no electricity as they traveled to Liberia and began interviewing some of the women involved. Eventually, as word of the project spread, archived VHS footage and personal testimonies began trickling in, allowing them to reestablish the story of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace. The resulting film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, won for Best Documentary at 2009's Tribeca Film Festival and was shortlisted for the Academy Awards.
The Republic of Liberia possesses a unique national history among its African neighbors. In 1822, the American Colonization Society elected to establish Liberia as a colony for freed slaves. The country declared its independence in 1847, forming a government based on the ideals of the United States and naming its capital Monrovia after our fifth president. When a military coup overthrew the government in 1980, a long period of civil and economic instability led to mass displacement and an estimated 200,000 Liberian deaths, as well as untold atrocities committed against women and children.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell tells the overlooked story of the Women In Peacebuilding Network, the Christian Women's Initiative and several other female-led organizations that banded together women of different religions and creeds to protest both the iron-fisted leadership of then-President Charles Taylor and the violent activity of rebel bush group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. At the forefront of the film is Leymah Gbowee, a former child-soldier counselor and a founding member of WIPNET. Having lived in a war-torn country since the age of 17, Gbowee formed the Christian Women's Initiative to give a voice to the victims of rape and violence, and to call for peace. Liberian police officer Asatu Bah Kenneth, a devout Muslim, was in attendance at their first meeting, and pledged the support of the Muslim female community.
"God is up," she declared passionately in front of the assembly. "We're all serving the same God."
Together, the Christian Women's Initiative and Kenneth's Liberian Muslim Women's Organization formed the Liberian Mass Action for Peace. Setting aside jewelry and traditional colorful clothing, hundreds and then thousands of women dressed in plain white shirts staged public sit-ins, withheld sex from their husbands and finally helped organize peace talks between Taylor's regime and LURD. When the negotiations stalemated, the women blocked access to the building's exits, giving the leadership a taste of the hunger and desperation of their downtrodden countrymen, and then threatened to undress when the men sought to escape. Their valiant efforts resulted in a peaceful change of government and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first woman president.
A chilling, heartbreaking and remarkable testament to the courage of these extraordinary women, Pray the Devil Back to Hell demonstrates the power of setting aside religious and ideological differences in order to create a peaceful nation.
Two special screenings on Thursday, April 16, at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to benefit the International Rescue Committee. Admission is $8.
Opens Friday at The Flicks