'The Redemption of General Butt Naked'

This amazing docu confronts the contradictions of reconciliation in a war-ravaged continent.

“The Redemption of General Butt Naked” tells of Joshua Milton Blahyi, a feared and despised Liberian warlord who, by his own reckoning, was responsible for the savage slaughter of 20,000 men, women and children during the civil war before he laid down his arms and transformed himself into an evangelical preacher. Combining archival footage of Blahyi’s past atrocities with a five-year chronicle of his self-proclaimed redemption and public amends, Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion’s amazing docu confronts the contradictions of reconciliation in a war-ravaged continent. Blahyi’s flamboyant self-promotion, alternately as killer and as savior, should ensure niche play.

While some consider Blahyi’s conversion a trick to escape retribution, the similarities between his “evil” and “good” incarnations — both highly theatrical, both granting him plum parts in powerful mythologies — almost render such speculation irrelevant.

Blahyi came by his moniker honestly. He and his army of forcibly recruited children went on the warpath wearing only shoes, believing their nakedness bestowed invincibility, magically protecting them from bullets. Sometimes they donned wigs, masks or women’s clothing, further means of appearing “unnatural” and unnerving. They moved through towns and villages, mowing down everyone in their path with blades or bullets (the general admits to preferring the feel of a cutlass piercing flesh), dashing babies’ heads against walls, even practicing cannibalism and human sacrifice.

Blahyi openly confesses that he took real pleasure in causing pain. He even recounts how he used Hollywood movies, showing an actor dying in one movie and resurrected in another (the filmmakers here provide illustrations) to convince his pint-sized soldiers of their immortality.

After his alleged spiritual epiphany, Blahyi is shown pouring the same manic enthusiasm that fueled his killing sprees into impassioned sermons. Not content to merely address his flock, he holds revival meetings all over a country that has no reason to trust or believe him, his professions of remorse to his victims often eliciting tears and forgiveness. He invites the camera into the slums where his ex-soldiers, now addicted to drugs, lie in squalor. He shows how he is rehabilitating them through religion, decent housing and clean living.

Apparently first among the warlords, he agrees to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, admitting the horrific nature of his war crimes, his prompt action winning him complete amnesty. But his non-sentence provokes death threats, and Blahyi abandons his good works to flee into exile, where the filmmakers show him lying around his hotel room while most of his “boys” backslide into drugs and hopelessness, disillusioned by his flight.

Helmers Strauss and Anastasion doubtless intend to raise serious questions about the nature of change, forgiveness and redemption, all burning issues in war-torn Africa. But in contrast with Anne Aghion’s examinations of collective reconciliation in Rwanda, Blahyi’s larger-than-life nature and myriad, admittedly fascinating contradictions dominate all discourse.

Uneven tech credits render the film’s timelines and sequences of events occasionally confusing, and the catch-as-catch-can camerawork is distinguished mainly by the primo access to its subject.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked

Production

A Part2 Pictures production in association with Mad Monitor Prods. (International sales: the Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion. Executive producers, Gregory Henry, David Shadrack Smith. Co-producers, Ryan Hill, Ryan Lobo. Directed by Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Strauss, Peter Hutchens, Ryan Hill; editor, Jeremy Siefer; music, Justin Melland; re-recording mixer, Jacques Boulanger; associate producer, Todd Wendel. Reviewed at Final Frame, New York, Jan. 13, 2011. (In Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Joshua Milton Blahyi, the Butt Naked Brigade, David "Senegalese" Johnson, John Kun Kun, Josie Blahyi, Yormi Johnson, Lovetta Wilson.

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