On the run from a nightmarish civil war, social worker Leymah Gbowee couldn’t give her hungry son even a “piece of doughnut,” but, together with several thousand women in the same seemingly powerless situation, she managed what American protestors and politicians, and even the United Nations couldn’t: uniting Christians and Muslims to bring about the end of a war.
Liberia circa 2003 as Gbowee describes it, and as an unbelievable amount of expertly edited live-action footage depicts it in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, is considerably less hospitable than Orwell’s Oceania. President Charles Taylor, who’s shown boasting he will “reconstruct the minds of our people,” rose to power by giving drugs and automatic weapons to armies of young boys and setting them loose in his own country, and a coalition of warlords seeks to take it away from him by the same means. The boys, many of whom appear to be elementary-school age, are sent out with no provisions, only guns, instructed to take what they want from civilians, resulting in acts of robbery, rape, and murder, secondhand accounts of which are more sadistic than anything from Funny Games or Clockwork Orange. Liberian children, Gbowee says, “have been hungry and afraid their entire lives.”
Mothers such as Gbowee, several of whom are interviewed in Pray the Devil, formed the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative to work toward ending the war, and were soon joined — to the consternation of some members — by the Liberian Muslim Women’s Organization. As Muslim Asatu Bah Kenneth put it, “We’re all worshipping the same God,” or, more to the point, as an early saying in the movement went: “Can a bullet pick and choose?” Footage of Taylor attending church and the leaders of the warlord rebellion in their mosque encourage some careful consideration of both the wonderful acts religion sometimes incites and the atrocities it’s too often made to justify. While Taylor and the warlords plot to gain power through fear, the united women’s groups were devising a way to improve through nonviolent action a situation that couldn’t be fixed by more “developed” countries throwing guns and/or money at it.
Director Gini Reticker’s Pray the Devil is a perfect film for the Esperanza Center’s annual CineMujer festival, whose mission statement is to offer “opportunities for unheard women’s voices to break the silence.” Not only is it a masterful example of non-intrusive naturalistic storytelling directed and produced by women, the women’s crusade it documents — which begins with a weeks-long sit-in at the fish market in the Liberian capital of Morovia and ends with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf being elected the first female head of state in Africa — is equally heartbreaking and inspirational, offering real hope that new solutions are possible to problems older than recorded history, and reminding all of us that some of the traits commonly designated as female — empathy, forgiveness, pacifism — are simply higher-brain functions.
Pray the Devil will share the marquee this weekend with a few other documentaries that seek to pry your eyes open to places you’d rather not look. The Emmy-winner Made in L.A., directed by Almudena Carracedo, follows three Latina immigrants who demand workers’ rights for sweatshop laborers. Irena Salina’s FLOW reveals some unappealing truths about the impending water crisis, exacerbated by the private ownership of our dwindling supply of H20. And Olivia Klause’s Sin by Silence, featuring interviews with battered women serving time for killing their abusers, might seem a bleak counterpoint to Pray the Devil: Not everyone has the wherewithal to create hope in a hopeless situation, but Sin’s interviewees are advocating against domestic abuse from behind bars. Fictional feature-length film The Maid, was written and directed by Sebastián Silva — a man, if you can believe it — but it’s a tragicomic character study of Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), a dedicated servant who becomes vicious when she feels her tenuous place in the family she works for being threatened. These five unflinching looks at modern problems from the perspective of a marginalized majority push CineMujer beyond celebrating women’s contributions to film; the festival introduces the audience to activists whose successes and sacrifices give us a reason to feel optimistic about humanity’s future, and provides insight into some of the large — and small-scale problems still plaguing women and men, because a human’s work is never done. •