Call it a 21st-century version of Lysistrata, and you won’t be far off the mark.
United by their determination to end the years-old civil war that divided their country and decimated its population, a small band of determined women — Christians and Muslims — transcended religious differences and internecine squabbling to work for a just and lasting peace in the West African nation of Liberia. Armed only with the strength of their convictions, they defied the threats of rebellious warlords and the corrupt regime of President Charles Taylor to escalate their nonviolent campaign from peaceful protests at a Monrovian fish market to civil disobedience during stalled peace talks in Ghana.
And when authorities threatened to forcibly evict them from the site of those peace talks, the women played their trump card: Wives, mothers and daughters threatened to break a sacred taboo by stripping naked in front of the men.
But wait, there’s more: After helping to bring an end to the civil war in 2003, these same women campaigned to bring to power Liberia’s — and Africa’s — first elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Director Gini Reticker and producer Abigail Disney detail the inspiring story of the courageous Liberian women warriors for peace in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the award-winning film that will kick off Community Cinema Wednesday night, a series of free-admission preview screenings of exceptional documentaries at the Rice University Media Center. Co-sponsored by Rice Cinema, KUHT-TV and the Documentary Alliance, Community Cinema aims to showcase nonfiction features before their national broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens.
According to Reticker, when Disney first approached her to direct Pray the Devil Back to Hell, “I had some trepidation. All the stories coming out of Liberia [during the long civil war] had been so bleak, the violence against women appalling, the forced conscription of the child-soldiers heart-wrenching. I wondered if I could immerse myself in that material for the length of time it takes to make a documentary.”
But then the two American filmmakers met Leymah Gbowee, the activist who spearheaded the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement. After that, Disney says, “All of my trepidations turned instantly into unfettered enthusiasm. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to be able to tell the extraordinary story of these women who had joined together to bring peace to their devastated country.
“Their remarkable accomplishment had been virtually ignored by the press, and was on its way to be forgotten. Being part of ensuring that their story shines has been an absolute privilege.”
Producer Abigail Disney — grand-niece of the legendary Walt Disney — will be on hand for a Q&A after Pray the Devil Back to Hell is screened at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Rice Media Center.