Friday, October 23, 2009

Pray the Devil Back to Hell: A Review

Pray the Devil Back to Hell was a chilling testament to the result of 20 years of political unrest in a place founded by escaped American slaves. Filmed in Liberia, this documentary utilized many different approaches to tell the story of the birth and legacy of the Christian Women Initiative. We were introduced to the plight of the Liberians with screenshots featuring wall paintings of the illegal diamond industry and the accessibility of guns and drugs to young boys. This was accompanied by a soundtrack of soulful dirges only a woman who has truly known suffering could produce. I was impressed with the intensity of emotion a set of still life images could evoke. The audience was then plunged into amateur footage that granted a twisted “home movie” effect on Liberian civilians fleeing in terror as rebel forces commence in ransacking their village.

The candid footage was impressive in its scope, capturing everything from the daily fear and poverty, to the actual moments of attack when you realize that the film crew was actually risking their life right along side the Liberians to help tell their story. I went into this documentary with fear of having to view a seemingly endless sequence of footage tastelessly exposing me to the rape and brutality the people were suffering in order for me to be moved by their plight as if a common moral decency alone wouldn’t have led me to the conclusion that their cause was just. Instead of being afflicted by a visual repeat of the Belgian Congo, I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s pairing of just enough actual footage to set the tone with the complement of interviews, which helped to bring the audience’s understanding to the Liberians not just as “a people,” but as individuals with faces and unique voices (each wrought with sorrow) that comprise this collective movement.

Also to my great satisfaction, this film did not dwell unnecessarily on the anguish nor did it ignore its important influence on the Liberians, but it focused on what made this movie such an appropriate selection for the Global Day of Peace. It focused on the absolute best of the human spirit. Women who lived in fear for themselves and their family, who were displaced, women who had nothing to eat and seemingly had nothing to give their children gave them hope. They were not formally educated, they had no money and no weapons, and there was nothing that would have stopped the rebel men or men of the state from gunning them all down. And yet in that misery they sang and clapped for what must have seemed like countless days, and enacted real change on their country.

The women were not ignorant of what was required for peace. They identified the greed of the men, and after going back and forth between the warring factions convinced them to attend a peace talk in Ghana. There is great aesthetic contrast between Ghana and Monrovia, where many of the women from the Initiative came from. Monrovia was a destitute area in the throws of war while Ghana resembles one of America’s smaller cities. The men who usually wore clothes smeared with dirt and blood donned business suits and were enjoying the luxury of that city, and the women were not oblivious to the fact that the men were ignoring the purpose of the peace talk in order to enjoy the comparative extravagance of Ghana. It was empowering as a woman to see mothers, sisters, and daughters shame these men by making a barricade of their bodies around the conference center so that none could leave until peace was finalized. It is also important for men to witness how using their strength and power without regard for others can cause pain. This documentary is a beautiful demonstration of the balance tender women can offer aggressive male counterparts.

At this point in the documentary, the gritty, raw, and shaky style of amateur filming was abandoned for clips of news coverage of the peace talk from different stations. This helped to emphasize the relevance of these talks to the rest of the world, as many American-speaking networks were involved. It also reminded the audience of the reality that the world and especially these Liberian women were all waiting with bated breath for the outcome of this meeting. Because the documentary is paced chronologically, the viewer shares a sliver of the immense anxiousness the women felt waiting for peace to be announced. It was interesting to see how involved my country was in a situation I felt compelled by.

This movie may not be something you would put on your Netflix queue, but it is a story worthy of being told and there may not be a better film to watch that commemorates peace. It is the story of Christian and (unexpectedly) Muslim women bravely standing together against bullets armed with reason, hope, and love together with Veritas (a Catholic Broadcast Network) to “break the silence” that was allowing so many people to ignore the suffering of Liberia. One of the women in the Initiative said, “There is no culture without peace and understanding.” I think this movie should especially be seen by first world country cultures like ours because war is a daily hell for many people, and I think it seems unimaginable to a generation who has never seen war on their own soil. We need to see the infinite importance of peace, and recognize it as something that you have to be conscious of and work for, not just a thing that is. The women of Liberia recognized peace “not as an event, but as a process.” The movie gracefully follows this process and effectively communicates the struggle and hard earned relief of the paradigmatic underdog.