Sitting in a luxurious hotel lobby in Spain last week I came across an article by the actor Hugh Bonneville in The Times which was part of their Christmas appeal. It was about Liberia and in particular a young mum, who claimed she was 21 but was in fact 17. She was having her third child. Even if it survived birth it would struggle to make it out of childhood, such are the overwhelming health risks for children in Africa. I wish I could quote the striking figures about infant mortality in the article but they are tied up behind Murdoch’s News International online paywall, although that is another matter entirely. The unsettling truth is that I would not have lingered over the article had I not known I would be writing a review on a documentary about Liberia’s turbulent recent political history on my return to British soil. I was holidaying in a country with 20% unemployment and an expanding prostitution industry, and the depressing fact is that we are all guilty of choosing to focus on these more manageable economic and moral woes of developed nations, than look with unblinking eyes at the seemingly insurmountable challenge of Africa. We need documentaries like Pray The Devil Back To Hell to jolt us out of our ignorance and indifference now and again and spark good souls into action.
Having said this, badly made documentaries can also turn an audience away from an issue, so it was an enormously important and difficult task that directors Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker took on. They were trying to summarise a long and bitter struggle and in particular distil the bravery and brilliance of ordinary women that formed a peace initiative that restored calm to their country. Liberia had once been envied as one of the few independent African republics, but just like other nations on the continent it encountered its terrible problems when the dream of a nation founded by free slaves on equality went sour over generations, leading to a sporadic civil war raging from 1989 to 2003. The conflict reached new and devastating heights at the beginning of the 21st century, so events remain chillingly fresh in the minds of those involved and are surely too close to be dismissed as mere history. Given the harrowing plight Liberians still face today according to The Times appeal, it’s clear this documentary had the potential to convince viewers why Liberia was as deserving of sympathy and aid as other better known African nations in crisis and poverty.
This is the story of an unlikely coalition of brilliant women, and given their brilliance the filmmakers are wise to let the women tell the story in their own words. From the beginning we are guided by the words of the charismatic leading light of the movement, and from then on the documentary is a painstaking fusion of moving interviews and dramatic archive footage. Initially the speakers set the scene of everyday life, then emotional interviews detail the atrocities carried out, both by the rebels supposedly fighting for democracy and the government forces commanded by President Charles Taylor, elected on the back of a campaign of fear. Having thus captivated the audience the film plunges into the remarkable story of the women that set out angrily to put a stop to the bloodshed in their villages of their friends and relatives. This story speaks for itself and is a tale of the power of peaceful protest that we in cynical developed nations may not think possible in the modern age.
Originating as a Christian movement the women’s plan for peace soon spread into the Muslim community and these two often divided groups of mothers proceeded to present a formidable and determined united front. Indeed the film is certainly a convincing advocate for the continuing good of religion in the modern world when its message is simplified to easily understandable, universal goods, namely peace in this case. Wisely the directors do not ram religion down the throat of the audience however; it is a key factor behind events but comes second to the sheer humanity of the story.
What’s especially extraordinary is that not only do the women force peace talks with their organised action, but they maintain the momentum to ensure the implementation of genuine democracy for their country, even after the ceasefire, to keep the widespread violence from making a comeback. As the momentum of the campaign builds so does that of the film and it’s easy to get swept up in the struggle. This is a story full of big and shocking ideas and issues but one with an ultimately idealistic message. There are rapes, murders and corruption, religion, race and reminders that our interconnected modern world means those in developed countries cannot afford to sit back and let the suffering play out (extracts from articles show that President Taylor had links to Al-Qaeda and other threats). In the end though the very real and authentic rhythms of African rhetoric, chanted by peaceful protestors clothed in harmless white, won the day. People power and perhaps as the Spice Girls said, girl power, conquers in a world where the odds are stacked against it. There is certainly something irresistibly inspiring about it all.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter some atmospheric opening titles with colourful African images and music, along with a concise running time of 72 minutes and the powerful likeability of the women, avert a gloomy lecture of a film. In any case the drama of the story itself would make it hard to make a boring film about such stirring events. Even with the ongoing challenges suggested by the article that I read this story has a happy ending that makes it possible for help to reach those who need it most in Liberia. One would certainly hope that now heartfelt donations go directly towards the care of children and young mothers like those I mentioned at the beginning, rather than into the pockets of corrupt officials or towards the production of weapons. Watch this film over the festive season to see how deserving many Liberians are of our gifts and goodwill. Watch it to spare a moment for those less fortunate than ourselves. Watch it to be gripped by something real, not a contrived and fake blockbuster but a story with actual characters that personify a selfless Christmas spirit.