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Film Review: Liberian Women Forge a Real-Life Lysistrata
A Review by Jaye Austin Williams

In early 2003, a collective dramatic gesture, starting in the United States as a correspondence between two actresses, spread like a brush fire around the world. Called "The Lysistrata Project," theatre companies hosted 750 staged readings in 49 countries of the Aristophanes satire. The phenomenon was in protest of the war in Iraq.

On The Issues Magazine -
Leymah Gbowee; Credit: Michael Angelo

Such collective gestures by members of the artistic community are not new, of course. They are, in fact, emblematic of the intertwining of art and socio-politics which harbors an impulse of nobility; namely, an articulation of resistance against wrongs in the hope that it will be to some positive effect. The Lysistrata Project utilized a play from antiquity about women galvanizing in protest against men's propensity for conflict by withholding sex, deploying the one gambit sure to give men pause no matter how entrenched they may be in their antagonistic endeavors.

Aristophanes' text has piqued rigorous debate about whether or not it is a feminist tract, given that its protagonist would be hard-pressed, in any real-life sense, to galvanize women on so grand a scale, and appears to be supremely content with the return to the status quo so long as the men cease and desist from their warring.

Still, The Lysistrata Projectís use of this fictitious, satirical gesture by a Greek male author and comedic master makes sense 16 centuries later.

But is there a relationship between that global gesture and one staged in the same year, amidst a theatre of war all too real, by Black women in a country situated on the west coast of Africa? For these women, the stakes were perilously high. Pathos rather than comedy was the framework surrounding the mortal risk they undertook. Yet their gesture resided curiously outside the "global" purview of "The Lysistrata Project."

Such was the action orchestrated by Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian social worker, one of a constellation of Liberian women whose poised, earnest and eloquent retrospective testimonies are captured by executive producers Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney in their documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

The film, initially released in the Spring of 2008 at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, documents a collective testament in response to the cumulative effects of the Civil War that erupted in Liberia in 1989. Its abject and divisive toll on the citizens of Liberia was so great that the women were moved to risk their lives in demanding the war's cessation.

Staging a Platform for Peace

Responding to the rapes of women and children, fast-rising cost of bulgur wheat, diminished access to water and other basic resources under Liberian President Charles Taylor's regime, the women look to the Biblical story of Esther as their inspiration. Dressed in white to signify peace, and with a big banner that reads "THE WOMEN OF LIBERIA WANT PEACE NOW," women, eventually reaching thousands, decide to camp out at the fish market every day. While they are there, Taylor's convoy passes by, slowing down to survey the women. Loved ones worry for the women's safety.

The women insist that the warring parties participate in peace talks. Taylor finally meets with the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria and others at a peace summit in Ghana. In a surprise move, Taylor is charged with crimes against humanity and flees. (Taylor is now involved in an ongoing trial at The Hague.) Faced with persistent destabilization in Liberia, the women continue to speak out until the international community acts and a transitional government is established.

On The Issues Magazine - Protesting in front of UN Envoy at Mamba Point Monrovia, Liberia. Credit: Pewee Flomoku
Protesting in front of UN Envoy at Mamba Point Monrovia, Liberia. Credit: Pewee Flomoku

What forges such a galvanizing moment in people's lives? How is it that the gesture of putting one's life on the line in the name of peace is done absent of all equivocation, unflinchingly bearing the burden of profound and uncharacteristic self-sacrifice?

The Liberian Civil War was an eruption of modern times. In the case of the Reticker-Disney endeavor, the antagonist is marked as the "devil," his hands squarely on the levers and dials, orchestrating the madness. That "devil" is, the film theorizes, Taylor, president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003. Gbowee declares at one point, "Taylor could pray the devil out of hell" (the phrase from which the film's title is spun) as the film cuts to a shot of Taylor speaking to a church congregation.

This cinematic moment situates Taylor inside a very particular equation: Taylor is to the devil as preacher is to God, or, in Faustian terms, Taylor is to the devil as Mephistopheles is to Lucifer. Taylor is the devil incarnate. Ironically, aiding and abetting that devil are the LURD rebels (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), who mobilize in opposition to Taylor's regime.

This oppositional move notwithstanding, one of the most distressing aspects of the crisis is that the "devil" and his rivals (the rebels) become indistinguishable; the rapes of women and pillaging of the citizenry, we are told, were perpetrated by both factions amidst the conflict's chaos.

Examining the Lens

In considering the film as a work of cinematic art in the non-fiction genre, it is interesting to examine its intersection of First and Third worlds, and the effect of the gendered lens through which Liberia’s crisis is framed, especially its effect on the representation of African men and women.

Religion functions in the film as a contextualizing framework. We are told in no uncertain terms that the amalgamation of Christian and Muslim women was forged to counter the untenable violence. Vaiba Flomo, a Christian woman who makes her living as a secretary, discusses the challenges of getting some of the Christian women to transcend the notion that working alongside Muslim women constitutes "diluting their religion." One question helps them: "Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?"

On The Issues Magazine - We Must Have Peace, Credit: Pewee Flomoku
Credit: Pewee Flomoku

While the film does not appear to assume any overt Christian or Muslim vantage point, religion as an organizing principle of anti-violence activism does seem to function as an undergirding current by which the film is propelled. A triumphant montage inside a Lutheran church appears near the film's end, for example.

A question arises concerning the methodological strategies used by the film in support of its thesis that the violence in Liberia was one of a dictatorship framed by gender division. This is not meant to negate either the women's experiences of the violence or the fact that men were indeed deployed to perpetrate it. Rather, it is to examine the formidability of cinematic imagery in indelibly inscribing itself into the imagination of the gazer.

The western habit is to cast Black bodies into masses of suffering, which de-particularizes them as individuals. One accomplishment of the film is the way in which it labors to subjectivize the women. They are each named, and their testimonies unequivocally validated and legitimized as the very fulcrum of the film's mission.

By marking the crisis along a gendered demarcation, however, the women's legitimacy comes at a cost: namely, a simplification of the warlords' and rebels' respective missions. This truncation, aided by repeated cross-cutting to men and boys with guns, men in suits laughing with one another, as women's voice overs vilify the inhumanity perpetrated by both the Taylor regime and the rebels, conflates the men into a mass of indistinguishable Black maleness marked by detestable violence.

This largely voiceless, but unquestionably Black, male face of violent criminality can be a dangerous strategy. The realization that many of the perpetrators of violence were themselves victims in a larger crisis is eventually articulated, but not until late in the film when the women reckon with the difficulty of forgiving their perpetrators in the wake of Taylor's ousting. It is a testament to the filmmakers and to the grace of their subjects that this is acknowledged. However, it is important to clarify that the men depicted in the film register as solely and essentially violent because the film constructs them as such.

Sekkuh Conneh, the National Chairman of LURD, is one of the few men to speak directly to the situation. He infers that violence is the only option since, he says, "Taylor does not listen to any peace, any negotiation, except the barrel of the gun."

Conversely, Taylor is permitted little verbal latitude in the film. The viewer understands Taylor to be an unsavory actor in the momentous tragedy in Liberia because the testimonies of the film declare him as such. Most of his previous controversial involvements are omitted by the film. These include suspicions that he embezzled $900,000 in government funds while the Director of the General Services Agency in Liberia under President Samuel Doe, followed by fleeing to the U.S. where he was imprisoned but not extradited. Remarkably, he then escaped from prison under circumstances that many believe were engineered by the U.S. government, eventually returning to Liberia with a militia.

The nature of Taylor's moral character is constructed by means of montages of short incriminating newspaper quotes, some of which are not readable. This is not to suggest, by any means, that the film overtly misstates any facts or that the women are bearing false witness. But this visual approach, combined with the women's testimonials limits the facts of Taylor’s back story. The result is a visual conflation of malfeasance, maleness and Blackness, suggesting a documentary approach that is not entirely balanced.

As a result, the film runs the risk of reducing Taylor's tyranny and malfeasance to that of "devilment," rather than contextualizing his actions within larger, structural and deeply more heinous terms -- terms which have global, rather than merely Black, Liberian male implications.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell theatrical trailer

Further, the intersection of First and Third World perspectives raises a question of whether the film is inherently racialized; that is, the filmmakers are two Western white women documenting a crisis in a country within a Third World, Black continent. The film was made in a climate that has promoted the notion of "post-racialism." This idea, a product of the neo-liberalist conflation of multi-racialism with the presumption that racism is somehow extinct, is a delusionary project of the new millennium. In such a climate, new manifestations of colonialism can occur, obfuscating the ways in which particular triumphs, such as that of the women in this documentary, can be mistaken for paradigmatic shifts in power relations.

The triumph in Liberia in 2003 has humanistic and historic significance. But it does not signal a paradigmatic shift that would preempt a horrific situation like the one these women protested from occurring again. Gbowee, in effect, infers this, in her powerful assertion that, "Liberians knew that if things ever got bad again, we would be back."

Put differently, the existence of this possibility is a cautionary reminder that the success won by these women occurred within a structure of persistent and uneven relations of power which emanate outward beyond the confines of Liberia. As such, a recurrence remains a possibility, and Gbowee's and her comrades' vigilance remains a necessity.

Unflinching Courage of Women in the Foreground

The "power and selfish greed" that Liberian women observe in the warlords have larger implications when the question is raised as to whether they are actually the agents of that power. The roots of violence, corruption and decay that resulted in the murder, rape and brutalization of the people of Liberia does not emanate solely from Taylor. Yet he is positioned in the film as a lone mastermind of that violence.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a striking achievement in terms of its earnest appeal to the viewer to hear these women and what they have suffered. To its credit, the film foregrounds not only the women's suffering, but also their articulations of their experiences. As Gbowee says in the film, “As custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’” The ending is both triumphant and redemptive.

The film is an important artistic rendering about a grim time in Liberia's history and places the women of Liberia and their unflinching courage on the map as testament to the galvanizing potential of women far beyond the realm of a theatrical story where the stakes are imaginary.

Jaye Austin Williams is a doctoral student in the Joint PhD Program in Drama and Theatre at the University of California Irvine/San Diego, where she is also an instructor of dramatic literature. She is pursuing an emphasis in Critical Theory as it applies to depictions of and articulations by and about African-descended Peoples in dramatic literature, performance and cinema. Jaye holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and has spent the better part of the last 30 years as a stage director, playwright, actor, teacher, writer and consultant.

Also see Justice for Aung San Suu Kyi: End Male Power Structures by Janet Benshoof in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Poets Eye in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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