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Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008)
Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a documentary film directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney. The film premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Documentary. The film had its theatrical release in New York City on November 7, 2008. The film documents a peace movement called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Organized by social worker Leymah Gbowee, the movement started with praying and singing in a fish market. Leymah Gbowee organized the Christian and Muslim women of Monrovia, Liberia to pray for peace and to organize nonviolent protests. Dressed in white to symbolize peace, and numbering in the thousands, the women became a political force against violence and against their government. Their movement led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, the first African nation with a female president. The film has been used as an advocacy tool in post-conflict zones like Sudan, mobilizing African women to petition for peace and security. A group of ordinary women in Liberia, led by Leymah Gbowee, came together to pray for peace.
Retiker introduces us to Leymah Gbowee, the indomitable founder and leader of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace. Gbowee recounts the day she felt inspired to rally the women of her Christian church to protest a war that had already been raging across Liberia for more than a decade. That day, Gbowee's passion found enthusiastic followers in her church as well as a peer in Asatu Bah Kenneth, a career police officer and a Muslim, who resolved to galvanize support from the women in her community. Indeed, Gbowee's message stirred a revolutionary fervor among Liberia's embattled women, both Christians and Muslims, who banded together to stage sit-ins and demonstrations to demand that Taylor and his opposition end the war, and begin peace negotiations.
At first, signs looked promising: The intransigent Taylor agreed to meet with his opposition -- rebel groups operating under the name Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (L.U.R.D.). The tenacious Gbowee and her companions even followed Taylor and the leaders of L.U.R.D. to the peace conference in Ghana to keep the heat turned up. But days into the talks, Taylor bailed, fearing arrest for war crimes, and returned to Liberia's capital, Monrovia, thus re-igniting the civil war.
The peace process now threatened, Gbowee rallied her activists, all anxious about their families back in Monrovia, to barricade the conference site with a mass sit-in. It was a desperate bid to turn the tide, and a remarkable and audacious show of determination. Their resilience on that occasion became Gbowee and her group's defining moment, paving the way not only for the peace to come, but in sealing Taylor's fate. That Liberia is today a democracy -- albeit an unstable one -- and is headed by a woman are developments that can be attributed directly to the achievements of Gbowee and her proud organization.
In a documentary like this, it's important to separate the 'what' from the 'how.' The 'what' is clearly compelling stuff, a testament to the power of women and their indispensable role in civil society (and, conversely, the male species' capacity to degenerate into lawlessness and violence). But the 'how,' that is, Reticker's approach to the subject, is a somewhat mixed bag, as Pray the Devil employs a style not far removed for a PBS Frontline episode: a series of talking heads, well-lit and elegant, alternating, in this case, with raw, often harrowing archival footage that underscores the testimony being offered by Gbowee, Kenneth, and several others. Inevitably, Reticker's style falls into a monotony that works against the material. Ultimately, though, the power of that material overcomes flaws in presentation, for the story of these tough, compassionate soldiers of peace demands to be seen, understood, and appreciated.