A perfect companion piece to the recent “Iron Ladies of Liberia,” which concerned the election of Africa’s first femme president, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” sets forth — in clear, concise, matter-of-fact words and images — the incredible happenings that led to that historic event. Compelling docu chronicles the actions of the coalition of Christian and Muslim women who prevailed over warlords and warriors to halt the decades-long fighting that claimed their fathers, brothers, husbands and children. Gini Reticker’s lucidly impassioned film, filled with strong, eloquent spokeswomen, garnered Tribeca’s docu award, bolstering its arthouse and ancillary prospects.
Accessing archival footage, American newspaper coverage and, increasingly, the direct testimony of women, Reticker limns Liberia’s first civil war and the rise of dictator Charles Taylor, proceeding to document the country’s second civil war in which an army led by opposing warlords devastated the countryside to wrest power from Taylor. The conflict killed a quarter of a million people and displaced another million.
Leymah Gbowee, as she recounts it, “had a dream” to gather the women of the church together to pray for peace, a tactic that, as Reticker shows, soon escalated into an activist Christian women’s organization, which in turn spawned a parallel Muslim movement. The impressive sight of the two supposedly antithetical white-clad groups, protesting the war in a thousands-strong sit-in that lasted for days, visually undercut the sectarian nature of the hostilities, which pitted a Christian president against largely Muslim rebel forces.
The attempts of the international community to end the violence went unanswered until the women, employing ancient “Lysistrata” techniques (reported but unseen) in addition to more contempo non-violent means, successfully bullied both sides into attending ceasefire negotiations in Ghana. When those talks stalled, the women formed barricades around the building and refused to let the men exit until an accord was reached. More effectively still, wives and mothers in the hallways threatened to break a sacred taboo and strip naked in front of the men.
The femme activists, who now had formed friendships and ties that transcended religion and custom, next tirelessly campaigned for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and eventually came to celebrate her victory.
Reticker, whose docus have all concerned women, presents the females’ calm visages and voices of reason in direct contrast to the unctuous public doublespeak of Taylor and the self-serving soundbites of the marauding warlords. Reticker’s film, enriching the already vast cinematic gallery of extraordinary African women, takes their innate power one step further, showing them quietly, determinedly putting a stop to the seemingly endless civil wars that are ravaging the continent and the globe.
Tech credits are fine, Kirsten Johnson’s able camerawork plussed by Kate Taverna’s finely tuned cutting.