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    Pray the Devil Back to Hell

    Conflict diamond in the rough

    A moving, beautifully shot, and inspirational documentary that doesn't quite tell the whole story of the atrocities that took place in Liberia between 2003 and 2006.


    In 2003, some of the people in my city were still saying that the world was irrevocably changed by 9/11, that it had been safe and secure and now it was terrifying. What they really meant was that their world, of smugly sitting in cubicles, spending $47.89 on a day's groceries, owning two SUVs, skipping local primary elections and feeling invincible, was irrevocably changed — other than the cubicles, the groceries, the SUVs and the voter apathy. For millions of the world's people, every day of the twentieth century was bloody, perilous and war-torn.

    Written and directed by: Virginia Reticker.
    Produced by: Abigail E. Disney.
    Cast: Janet Johnson Bryant, Etweda "Sugars" Cooper, Vaiba Flomo, Leymah Gbowee, Asatu Bah Kenneth, Etty Weah.
    Cinematography: Kirsten Johnson.
    Edited by: Meg Reticker, Kate Taverna.
    Music by: Blake Leyh.

    Related links: Official site
    In 1997, warlord Charles Taylor became president of Liberia after a long history of murder, torturing civilians, gunrunning, diamond-smuggling, prison-breaking. and embezzling government funds. (He was educated at Bentley College in Massachusetts — an economics major.) His campaign slogan was "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him." Civil war broke out again as soon as he rose to power and by 2003 60% of the Liberian government was controlled by violent insurgents. Taylor's presidency was marked by the conscription of child soldiers, the murder of more than 250,000 people, and the torture, mutilation, and displacement of a million more. This man, says activist Leymah Gbowee, could pray the devil out of hell. Of course, as with any other brutal, crazy dictator, Taylor didn't operate in a vacuum. He was elected under the supervision of U.N. peacekeeping forces and nourished by a thriving international market for firearms and blood-diamond wedding rings.

    Pray the Devil Back to Hell  
    "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" is about a group of remarkable Liberian women who formed a coalition across national, ethnic, and religious boundaries to end the fighting in their country and demand peace. At a time when these women were forced to leave their houses and their city while dodging showers of bullets — and teenage soldiers were moving from home to home, raping women and children, starting fires and murdering and torturing families — this was an almost unimaginable, and unprecedented, show of courage. Using traditional methods of peaceful protest, the women got two warring factions (Taylor's largely Christian troops and the largely Muslim anti-Taylor group LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) to participate in Peace Talks in Ghana. When the Peace Talks became a joke, because warlords accustomed to "sleeping in bushes" were suddenly treated to the high life, the women used their hundreds of bodies to barricade the men in a room until negotiations picked up speed. As a result of these negotiations, Taylor was indicted for crimes against humanity and a democratic election overseen by a U.N. Peacekeeping force was held in Liberia.

      [The film] will make people want to learn more about Liberia, and will open their consciousness of a larger world.
    On the plus side, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" is slick, inspiring, and moving. It's beautifully shot, with extensive footage of key events in West Africa, 2003-2006. The interviews with the women involved in this courageous movement are awe-striking. It will make people want to learn more about Liberia, and will open their consciousness of a larger world. The film details the atrocities that took place during Taylor's regime in a solidly introductory way that will speak to viewers who haven't been following African politics or the brutality associated with the control of weapons and natural resources in most of the world.

    Unfortunately, for a movie about one of the dirtiest conflicts in modern history, "Pray the Devil'" resolutely keeps its hands clean. It focuses clearly on the nobility of the women activists while leaving out a wealth of crucial information about the central role of rich, Western leaders and multinational corporate interests in Western Africa's ongoing violence. The film doesn't mention Taylor's (and other warlords) Western education, where all those guns handed out to ten-year-old boys came from, or who really controlled the blood diamond mines in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It also doesn't address economic, social, and educational gender inequality in Liberian society, preferring instead to take it for granted that men and women innately merit different roles. And it fails to answer key, inevitable questions about Liberian class inequality, educational history, and the internal workings of the ostensibly democratic election that merits such a tidy, happy ending.

    Pray the Devil Back to Hell  
    I'm always torn about movies like this. In a sense, it's an essential introduction to the atrocities that were going on every minute of every day in Africa while average Americans were buying Sierra Leonan gems and reelecting officials who sent the CIA to train violent rebel militias in arms techniques. A film that cuts to the heart of Western complicity in this dark situation would risk being shrill and polemical, alienating the very people who most need their consciousness raised. Perhaps listening to the stories of these courageous, articulate women peace fighters will lure viewers to activism on behalf of such groups. It's also understandable that the filmmakers wanted to show the women as the powerful movers and shakers that they are, rather than as sad victims of outside circumstances.

      It focuses clearly on the nobility of the women activists while leaving out a wealth of crucial information about the central role of rich, Western leaders and multinational corporate interests in Western Africa's ongoing violence.
    On the other hand, this moving, inspiring, and beautiful documentary (produced by Walt Disney's niece with $800,000 out of her own pocket) doesn't truly tell the story of events in Liberia, 2003-2006, events that leave many of our current world leaders with blood on their hands, events that the public needs to understand. It tells a small, telefriendly, less-threatening piece of the story, neatly apolitical, Oprah-fied if not Disney-fied.

    NOVEMBER 2, 2008

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