Throughout the world and throughout time, women have been victimized by renegade soldiers driven by powerlessness and dehumanization. For possibly the first time in the history of the African continent, if not the world, a group of women of different faiths and backgrounds united to protect their families and themselves in a brave and creative protest against a 15-year-long civil war that was destroying their country and families.
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is a documentary about the recent Liberian women’s peace movement. It is the story of how both Charles Taylor, the corrupt, despotic leader of the Republic of Liberia, and rebels staging a civil war against him, are ultimately defeated and replaced by the first female head of state on the continent of Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Abigail E. Disney, daughter of Roy and niece of Walt, conceived the idea for this documentary when she was visiting Liberia in 2003 as part of a group from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Surprisingly, the most inspiring incidents in this film, pasted together from African newscasts and interviews with principles, were not reported outside local African areas. Disney wrote in The Huffington Post in 2008, “I mean, if it had happened, wouldn’t I have read about it in the New York Times?? Or the Washington Post?? How was it possible that these Liberian women had accomplished such an enormous feat without having been noticed and reported on by the news outlets I had come to know and trust?”
The Liberian women’s peace movement influenced policy in the most effective yet peaceful ways these women could devise. They met every day in growing numbers, dressed in white, on Taylor’s driving route with placards for peace. In addition, realizing that the power in the country belonged to the men, they refused to have sex with their husbands until the killing was over.
At one point Leymah Gbowee, founder and executive director of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace and current international Women in Peace and Security Network, recounts an attempt for her arrest. She was monitoring the Ghana peace conference between Taylor and rebel leaders that was getting nowhere. To force the men to reach a compromise agreement her followers made a human chain several women deep around the outside of the conference room. No man could leave the conference hall to eat, drink or waste time. They were sealed in by the tenacious, resolute females, holding each other’s arms to block both exit and entry.
With local news cameras present, some of the conference attendees, tangentially or explicitly connected to the mass murders and rapes in Liberia, cracked a door threatening to arrest Gbowee if she didn’t remove the women and allow them out. She shouted in response a promise to take her clothes off in front of them if she was touched. Door closed — negotiations resumed and a compromise was forthcoming.
Since it debuted at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival and won Best Documentary honors, Disney’s entourage has enabled access to “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” throughout the world through screenings at churches, museums, schools and medical centers. Currently, through this film’s unique distribution process and accompanying education program, women in other conflict areas like Kurdistan, Sudan and Tiblsi, Georgia, are forming similar peace communities.
“Pray” is a testament to the goodness of the human spirit and the Gandhi-like power in the peaceful resistance of the disenfranchised. It is a celebration of the glory of women’s age-old instincts — to combat aggression through collaboration and compassion, voice and sexual persuasion. These women gathered together irrespective of religious or regional loyalties. They united in a movement of values and principles, calling for peace and respect. And they were successful.
Viewers will find themselves anxious to see an additional incarnation of this story as a docu-drama, revealing the home-lives and inner struggles of Gbowee and her fellow protesters. This is a story awaiting a dramatic full-screen epic — a story with an Academy Award potential.
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” was released on DVD Nov. 10.
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