Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker, the filmmakers behind Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which tells the groundbreaking story of the Liberian women who took on the warlords and the regime of dictator Charles Taylor in the midst of a brutal civil war, and won a once unimaginable peace for their shattered country in 2003.
Here, Disney and Reticker discuss their inspiration for the film, and the challenges they faced in acquiring footage.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell premieres as part of Women, War and Peace on October 18 at 10 p.m.
Ms. Disney and Ms. Reticker answered our questions via email.
Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to make Pray the Devil Back to Hell?
Gini Reticker: I have always been interested in women’s stories and have produced and directed docs on women around the world, including Africa. So when Abigail Disney, the producer of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, told me that she had met some Liberian women with an amazing and inspiring David and Goliath story, I wasn’t sure I believed her. I couldn’t believe the amazing true story of how a simple, interfaith, nonviolent protest movement—women in white T-shirts—had broken down a brutal war machine that had seemed permanently entrenched in Liberia. Surely, if it were true, someone would have reported it and all that was in the press were reports of the overwhelming atrocities committed against women in Liberia. Then we met Leymah Gbowee and I knew that this was a story that had to be told.
Abigail E. Disney: I was very interested in Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf because she was elected as the first female head of state in Africa since Cleopatra. While this may be an overstatement, it nevertheless grabbed my attention because I know from my experience working with women that an election such as this doesn’t come from nowhere. There had to have been some groundwork laid for such an historic event to have occurred. So my interest was already piqued when a friend, Swanee Hunt, who ran the Women & Public Policy program at the Kennedy School at Harvard, asked me to go with her to Liberia to see if there was anything we could do to support Ellen’s presidency. During our trip, I heard the story of women’s involvement in the peace process that ended Liberia’s civil war. I heard it repeatedly and was struck by the fact that I hadn’t heard this story in the news. It was historic, epic and courageous, yet no one outside of Liberia knew it. And what was worse was that it was clearly on its way to being forgotten. It was an oral story that wasn’t written anywhere. While the women were telling it amongst themselves, I was concerned that the process of erasure was setting in. I went home from the trip with the sense that it might be possible to pull this important story back from the edge and the feeling that we had to choose to prevent this erasure from occurring, and beyond that, to lift up the example of these women and show the world what they’d done.
IT: Was there any resistance to allowing the events surrounding the peace talks in Accra be filmed?
GR: We were not filming during this time. All of the footage from this event is archival footage.
IT: What was the hardest part of making this film?
GR: The most difficult part making this film was finding footage of the women’s actions. Though hours and hours of footage exists that captures child soldiers, horrible brutality and battle scenes, there was virtually no footage of the women’s involvement fighting for peace. I knew that if we didn’t find the footage to back up their story—which I had pieced together from hours of interviews with over 20 women—it would be as if what they did had never happened. Their story would disappear from its rightful place in history. So we kept searching, turning over ever stone imaginable, eventually getting some of the key footage from Charles Taylor’s own videographer.
AD: We didn’t understand at the time we started how much we would have to rely on archival footage, so the lack of footage didn’t daunt us at the beginning. We didn’t really understand until we were deep into production just how hard it was going to be to find the archival footage we needed. In fact, a pivotal moment in the film, when Leymah Gbowee threatens to strip naked, was footage we couldn’t find until the last three weeks of the editing process. It was like our Moby Dick. We just couldn’t find it!
Women work in informal networks: a friend of a friend said, “I hear you’re looking for this. I think you should try this guy.” It turned out that this man had been the presidential videographer in Liberia since 1978. He had been there for the original coup, the assassination of everybody in the ministries, and the mortar attacks on the presidential palace. In an effort to cut costs, President Sirleaf had eliminated the position of presidential videographer but he had kept everything in boxes spread around in safe houses because he understood how inflammatory it was; it was dangerous to have, and he had everything.
IT: How has the women’s peace movement changed the way women are viewed and treated in Liberian society? Can the fact that a female president was elected following the war be attributed to their success?
GR: There are more girls enrolling in school, running for class office; more women going to night school to learn to read; more women participating in the electoral process; more women in government. As Leymah Gbowee says at the end of the film, “There’s no way that the history of Madam Sirleaf can be written without the history of the women’s peace work. It was the cake, and then her election was the icing.”
IT: What message do you hope viewers will take from the film?
GR: I hope viewers take away a sense of hope and inspiration that can apply to their own lives. If these women from Liberia, who are not really very different than any of us, can face the odds they did and still do what they did, any of us can do the same. It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating: you can never underestimate the power of a small group of determined people to change the course of history!
AD: I hope that viewers will take away with them the sense that the women of Liberia, when faced with the terrible trauma of war, were not simply victims but were propelled to be leaders and peacemakers. A lot of people who watch the film, both men and women, have a tendency to personalize it in a way that really surprised and incredibly pleased me. People have embraced the film and feel a certain relief at finding somebody for whom they can genuinely use the word “hero.”