Pray the Devil Back to Hell

"Very Good"

Pray the Devil Back to Hell Review


Between 1989 and 2003, the nation of Liberia, on the western, sub-Saharan coast of Africa, collapsed into a civil war between the government of the despotic Charles Taylor and a coalition of warlords. Boys were conscripted, families torn apart, there were mass killings and rapes, and towns and villages were plundered and destroyed. In that sense, the Liberian conflict seems a mirror image of so many other African civil wars and atrocities that together have formed a kind of cruel cliché of Africa as a lost cause. But that's where director Gini Reticker and producer Abigail Disney's Pray the Devil Back to Hell shines like a beacon of hope. Their documentary casts light on how a group of commoners, driven only by the desire for peace, altered the course of a troubled nation's history for the better. It's even more astonishing to note that this group was made up entirely of women -- mothers and daughters fed up with the cabal of thugs -- all men -- holding sway over their families and futures.

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.

Message received.



Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Facts and Figures

Run time: 72 mins

In Theaters: Friday 8th May 2009

Distributed by: Balcony Releasing

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 37

IMDB: 7.6 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Gini Reticker

Producer: Abigail E. Disney, Johanna Hamilton

Starring: Janet Johnson Bryant as Herself, Etweda Cooper as Herself, Vaiba Flomo as Herself, Leymah Gbowee as Herself, Asatu Bah Kenneth as Herself, Etty Weah as Herself

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