Saturday, April 25, 2009
By Elise Nakhnikian
The word "inspirational" is so overused that I generally try to leave it alone for some much-needed rest, but I have to pull it out to describe the movie I saw last Friday.
When my friend Laura invited me to a screening of Pray the Devil Back to Hell at an ABA mediation and arbitration conference she was attending, I jumped at the chance, since I'd heard great things about it. What I didn't know was that its producer, Abby Singer, would be there -- and that her comments afterward would be almost as interesting as the movie itself.
Pray the Devil is a documentary about an group of women in Liberia who, sick of the senseless civil war that had been tearing apart their country for nearly a generation, started a peace movement. The idea came to a woman named Leymah Gbowee in a dream. She took it to the women of her church, who became the core of a group that eventually numbered in the thousands.
Going up against the bloodthirsty President Charles Taylor and the rebel warlords who set hordes of boys and young men on the rampage, terrorizing the country, took the kind of guts few of us have. The women made themselves as unthreatening as possible, calling themselves the Christian Women's Peace Initiative (although, as the movie stresses, they included many Muslim women), dressing all in white, and invoking their children as their motivation.
As Gbowee says in the movie: "Liberia had been at war so long that my children had been hungry and afraid their entire lives." To shame the president and warlords who were profiting from that chaos and despair, the women just kept showing up where they knew the men would be. Holding up signs, singing songs, and presenting petitions, they served as a living reminder of all the people who wanted peace now.
Their refusal to be intimidated into hiding or going along with the status quo helped drive Taylor into exile. They also shamed the participants in the country's sham peace talks into actually hammering out an agreement and putting a transitional government in place.
And they didn't stop there. Politicized by the process and too smart to trust the warlords who had appointed themselves to key positions in the transitional government, the women stayed together after the war was over. They helped convince the warlords' troops to hand in their arms, and they were instrumental in instituting a democratic process that wound up electing the first female president in all of Africa.
It's an extraordinary story -- and it might have been lost forever if it weren't for another admirable woman, producer Abigail Disney.
In her talk after the movie ended, Disney said she went to Liberia after hearing about the women to see if there was a story there worth filming. Though this was only a couple years after they had finished their work, and though all kinds of major news media had been covering the war and elections in Liberia, Disney says she could only find bits and pieces of the story, almost all anecdotal. And while she saw hundreds of hours of footage of "boys shooting at each other, boys with AK-47s, people eating human hearts -- horrible, horrible things," she could find almost no shots of the women who had been on the scene every day for months.
One pivotal scene, of the women in a hallway outside the sham peace process, linking arms and refusing to let the men inside come out until they reach an agreement, was salvaged from a video shot by a non-journalist who happened to be there. The videotape had been used to prop open a window, so only 18 second of that segment was usable.
"It came to me, this is what erasure looks like," says Disney, who said she has a long-standing interest in bringing to light stories about women that have been left out of the official histories. "News reporters and photographer are writing the first draft of history, and they didn't even get into that first draft."
While she was making the movie, she says, the head of a major nonprofit human rights organization told her: "Why are you making a movie about those women? I was there. They were pathetic." For Disney, that comment summed up the arrogance and assumptions about power that make it so hard for women like the Christian Women's Peace Initiative to be heard -- and so important that we pay attention when they speak up despite all the obstacles.
If we never hear the stories of brave peacemakers like these, we're more likely to be passive ourselves if we're faced with a similar situation, Disney says. "If we go into the next war having misunderstood these women as objects rather than subjects, we're doomed to accept as inevitable the stories we've seen before about war."
Feeling that sense of hopelessness challenged is what makes it so thrilling to watch the unarmed women in Pray the Devil not just stand up to a brutal war machine but help shut it down.
It's downright inspirational.