The adage "Things could always be worse," however true, can seem like a poor consolation during uncertain times. Things look considerably sunnier here in comparison to war-torn Liberia, the setting of the engrossing documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Civil war has racked the nation for much of the past 20 years. The film features harrowing video footage of women and children fleeing from wartime unrest, as well as wrenching tales of atrocities.
Despite offering glimpses of mankind at its worst, Pray the Devil Back to Hell presents the heartening message that dedicated people can force social improvement. Gini Reticker's plain but powerful nonfiction film reveals how the women of Liberia, outraged at the country's bloodshed, organized a peace movement that brought the nation back from chaos.
Social worker Leymah Gbowee leads a group of interviewees – at times haunted, at times feisty, but always compelling – who recall how the peace movement began with Christian churches. Asatu Bah Kenneth, the Muslim president of the Liberian Female Law Enforcement Association, joined the cause and, as Gbowee explains, served as a kind of "spy" for the peace movement. (Kenneth, along with producer Abigail Disney, will be in Atlanta for Q&As at screenings on Dec. 12-13.) In a show of cross-denominational mobilization, Christian women urge their churches to put pressure on Liberia's church-going former President Charles Taylor (who could allegedly "pray the devil out of hell"), while their Muslim counterparts tried to influence LURD, the primarily Muslim warlords on the countryside.
At a time when teenage boys and even tweens roamed the streets armed to the teeth, the women show remarkable courage in holding demonstrations and eventually present Taylor with their demands. They even allude to holding sex strikes to enlist their husbands in the cause. When peace talks stall and fighting worsens in Liberia's capital, the women stage a sit-in to confine the delegates in the negotiation rooms.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell telescopes Liberia's more recent history, and leaves us hungry to learn more about the connection between the peace movement and the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa's first female head of state. It's a little disappointing that the film doesn't describe more of the personal lives of its heroines, but at least Reticker's lean narrative focuses on events more than abstractions. Pray the Devil Back to Hell never explicitly mentions Gandhi or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but its women clearly carried the same spark to make things better.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell 3 stars Directed by Gini Reticker. Stars Leymah Gbowee, Asatu Bah Kenneth. Not rated. Opens Fri., Dec. 12. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.