A study of contrasts, depicting human beings’ ability to destroy and terrorize as much as they can rebuild and empower, the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell is serving as an advocacy tool across the world, according to its producer, Abigail Disney.
Disney and other collaborators screened the award-winning 79-minute film, detailing the civil war in Liberia in the early 2000s, and the subsequent women’s peace movement that prompted cease-fire negotiations, at the United Nations on 27 October.
The gripping, simultaneously devastating and uplifting, film was met to warm reception, as it has been at its 450 other screenings, in 32 countries on seven continents, over the past five months.
It’s hard to not be affected by the depicted horrors warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor wreaked on Liberia during his authoritarian regime, stretching from 1997 to 2003. The film shows, largely through original footage and newsreels from the times, the culture of fear and violence that Taylor bred in Liberia. He had the ability, as Liberian women’s and peace activist Leymah Gbowee commented in the film, to “pray the devil out of hell.”
Yet as the film shows, Gbowee and thousands of other strong-willed Liberian women demonstrated the ability to pray the devil back into hell, through their peace protests and strong unifying efforts. Gbowee, a central character in the documentary who was present at the screening, notes in the film that in the early 2000s, she had a “crazy dream,” to mobilize Liberian women at a church and pray for peace. At the time, a rebellion movement against Taylor, led by a group called the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, was underway.
Gbowee acted on the premonition, and soon found herself as the leader of a much larger movement. Dressed in all white, Gbowee and many others positioned themselves in Monrovia, standing under the hot sun, and through the cold rain, everyday for months in name of peace. Their protesting took many forms, as the women starved themselves and withheld sex from their husbands, saying that the men were responsible–indirectly or directly–for the commonplace sexual, conflict-related violence in Monrovia and the rest of Liberia.
The women’s courageous address to Taylor prompted Liberia to engage in peace-talks in Ghana. Thousands of the women followed him there, later protesting within the peace talks hall itself, in order to ensure that it did not become “a circus,” Gbowee states.
Gbowee and the other remarkable women depicted in this film risked their lives on multiple occasions in the name of peace and justice, but their movement appears to have had lasting effects, both within Liberia–now the first African nation with a female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf–and beyond.
Gbowee noted that when the film was shown in Sudan, female audience members were immediately inspired to draft and circulate a petition about peace and security. Women in Zimbabwe sprung to action, trying to devise a similar coalition to the one Gbowee headed.
Looking toward the tenth anniversary of United Nations Resolution 1325, which requires parties in a conflict to respect women’s rights and to support their participation in peace negotiations and post conflict reconstruction, Pray the Devil Back to Hell offers a “concrete vision for what the resolution can look like,” Disney said.
Gbowee told MediaGlobal she hopes it can also serve as a call for action for the United Nations to better implement its women-focused resolutions.
“They are doing their best but there is a lot more that they could do,” Gbowee said. “One of the things I always say to the UN is go back to all those resolutions over the past ten years, dust it off the shelf. You see good things in there but it is just not enough to put these resolutions out there if you don’t have the mechanism in place to really document how well countries are doing.”
She continued, “Let there be some measure to shame those that are doing bad and to applaud those that are doing good… because honestly, why should Guinea be sitting in the General Assembly? Why should Congo still be sitting in the GA? People need to be kicked out and that is the only way we will really realize truth or some semblance of responsibility to these resolutions.”
One Liberian man, Kona Khasu, 39, present at the screening, remarked on the grand influence Gbowee has personally had over creating a stable, democratic Liberia. He spoke of her courage, noting how his father, a “tough guy and a political stalwart” used to take backroads throughout Monrovia, for fear of facing Taylor and his convoy.
Gbowee, on the other hand, purposefully positioned herself and her followers in front of Taylor’s driving route each day.
“Just knowing that tells me all I need to know about Leymah’s strength and how amazing it is, what they were able to do,” Khasu, now a New York City resident, told MediaGlobal. “Without them, there would be no Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Liberia would not be where it is today. What they did was incredible.”