Monday, January 30, 2012

The Courage to Fight the Devil

Find Pray the Devil Back to Hell on Video

The Courage to Fight the Devil

(from 11/4/08)

praythedevilleymah.jpg Leymah Gbowee
There were two impressive women on the big screen during this spring's Tribeca Film Festival that I haven't stopped thinking about. You'll be able to see both this month in New York. Little known Irish actress Eileen Walsh ("The Magdalene Sisters") deservedly won Best Actress at the festival for a star-making performance in "Eden," Declan Reicks' powerful film about a crumbling marriage that opens November 14. I hope she gets an Oscar nomination and we'll see a lot more of her. A great actress.
Also a virtual unknown, Leymah Gbowee is the central figure in "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," a passionate, eye-opening documentary about a recent but obscure chapter in Liberian history--and perhaps the greatest chapter ever not written about women leading a political moment. (It's kind of like "Salt of the Earth" in which women "manned" the picket lines for their striking miner husbands--but on a much larger scale.) The modest but charismatic Leymah was at the forefront as 2,500 courageous Christian and Muslim women relentlessly waged a lengthy and dangerous protest to bring to an end to an endless Civil War, save their children, eradicate rape, dispose of a dictator, and bring democracy (and a female president) to their country. After watching her stand up to the imposing Charles Taylor in the movie and literally change history, it was quite humbling and thrilling to chat with her, as well as the talented filmmakers. Producer Abigail Disney (who knew that the grandniece of Walt Disney would be a progressive?), director Gini Reticker, and the remarkable Lehman Gbowee (who arrived late due to getting out of a cab two miles, rather than two blocks, away) took part in the following roundtable at the festival. Their uplifting must-see film opens Friday at the Cinema Village, as part of a national release.
Danny Peary: When did you come upon the story about what happened in Liberia?
Abigail Disney: I was traveling to Liberia with a group of women who were interested in Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's presidency. She had been inaugurated about three months before I got there. It's almost exactly two years ago now. We were there just to be supportive of the presidency in whatever way we could. It's hard to really comprehend how broken that country is and, really, every bit of help you can bring to it, you need to bring to it. I met with women activists who had been around the women's peace-making committee for a long time, and they would tell me a lot of different things. They kept referring to what had happened in Liberia a though I knew it already. So, it would be referred to in passing, and I was seeing before me this emerging jigsaw puzzle that was missing half the pieces. I kept asking more about what happened without getting the full amazing story about how Christian and Muslim women of Liberia banded together and stopped what looked like a never-ending civil war. They wanted to save their children and stop the rape of women. And the other result was the end of dictator Charles Taylor's reign. I realized I was witnessing the process of erasure, the historical processes by which we as a civilization forget some of the things that people did. The reason women, such as these women of Liberia, are not represented in history is because we consistently cross them out of the record. And because there was no record being written, the story was coming to me as half truths and half lies. I admit I had cynicism myself about the story because I was the type of New Yorker who believed if it wasn't in the New York Times, it didn't happen. Then on my last night there, I met a guy from the European Union who had been at the peace talks. And I said, "You know, I've heard some things and I'm just curious what you think?" He was the most regular guy you're ever going to meet and I thought this is the guy who's going to debunk the fairy tale. But he said we would not be sitting there in peace with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president if it hadn't been for what those extraordinary women did. So I came back to America with the idea that somebody had done something great and the story was on the verge of being wiped off the planet like so many things have been in the past. At that point Gini and I, who had known each other many years before, reconnected. We talked endlessly about the story. And then we had another great stroke of luck. A friend of mine happened upon Leymah at a hearing of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, and she connected Leymah and us. So many parts of the puzzle were missing because I hadn't met Leymah yet. Because she is a person with really extraordinary charisma and a capacity to tell a story really well. When she told it to us, we knew we had to run with it.
Gini Reticker: The first people we interviewed were Leymah and the woman who tells the rape story. We pieced their stories together in a historical time line, and from that I knew who else I wanted to interview. We went to Liberia on a scouting trip and got twelve to fifteen women together, and I chose from them who else I wanted to interview. Then we figured out what other kinds of shots we needed to get and did a tremendous amount of archival research, piecing this story together. The hardest thing in making the film was that it was the story of a group of women, not just Leymah's story. So how do you get intimate enough with other women, too, so that you get to feel that you know who they are, and at the same time place their stories into a historical context?
This was all taking place at the same time the United States was invading Iraq. While we were making this film I had people all the way up the human rights chain saying to me, "Oh this didnt happen because we weren't part of it." And I'm like, "Excuse me?" And then we had encounters with people who were shocked by women who had said, "Oh they looked so pathetic. I thought were nothing." And we had people say to us, "The women didn't really play a big role. They weren't key players. They were just the conscious of the country." And I said to them, "Okay. I'm a little confused. In a place that has completely lost its moral compass, the women who were the conscious of the country didn't play a major role?"
Q: What role did the women have in the editing the film?
GR: Leymah has been back and forth many times to New York doing work for the United Nations and if we were missing a line or needed something, she would help. And if we weren't clear about something other women would help, too. But they had no editorial input.
Q: What was really moving was the fact that Leymah was an average woman wanting to save her family and she grew into an activist and true leader of the movement. What did her story mean to you?
GR: We saw that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Leymah is an extraordinary person but she grew into that. Her story actually started when she was seventeen-years-old at the beginning of the civil war. She actually went through a long period were she was like a party girl. She just drank. She felt like what's the difference? This is just war. But she had four children and at a certain point she began doing social work and it progressed from there. It's amazing how many of the most significant events in the civil war she experienced. Even back in 1990 she and her family were in a church and got warning that there was going to be trouble, so they escaped just in time. There was a major massacre and six hundred people were killed.
Q: What as the hardest part about structuring your film?
GR: The hardest part was deciding where to start the story because the history was just so long. We tried to start it in 1990 but the war went on for so long and it looked so much the same, unfortunately. Eventually I said the real core of the story is what the women did to end the war, so we decided to go from there. From the very get go it was really important to me that the women tell their own stories without any interference. It was just trying to get the pieces to work together. Leymah would come back and forth and help me with narration if I didn't get what I needed in the original interview with her. Later on we had her talking about what the war was about.
AD: The most painful thing about making this film was to decide what we couldn't cover. It seemed so important that the film had the quality of a ride. We needed to get on and go all the way to the end without digressions. And there were too many stories and so many layers to cover. For example, we couldn't get into all details about the women meeting with Charles Taylor. Taylor had told them to come back, but only if there were twenty women. And I liked when Leymah said, "I'll be back." She came back with 2,500 women.
DP: Were you surprised to get hold of the footage that's in the film?
AD: Yes. We were in Liberia doing interviews but we also were actively doing research. Because this was history that very recently happened, we didn't have any book to go to. And nobody had footage. But our associate producer found this guy who had been the official videographer for the Executive Mansion since about 1977. He'd been there through coups, assassinations, and massacres. Charles Taylor periodically sent him out to do reconnaissance on the front line. He would helicopter in and video the fighting. He said that at one point he had video of a bullet going through the lens of his camera. He had been downsized out of a job by Ellen Sirleaf and was just sitting around with all of the masters. We reached out everywhere and wouldn't say no and I think we were really lucky to find this guy. Honestly, I don't think anybody else could have.
At this time Leymah Gbowee and arrived and joined the conversation. Before anyone could ask, she introduced herself.
Leymah: I was one of the women who initiated the Women's Peace Building Network. We started that network in Liberia. I worked as a caseworker for different church programs and then I was coordinating the work of the women. I couldn't handle both jobs so I resigned my full-time job and decided to take on the women's peace-building job. We were without any budget and without anything but my own conviction that women could be good peace-builders. Because I was the coordinator at the time, I was asked to lead to process. There were other women who could have been the spokesperson in that phase of the movement, but they all decided there and then that I should be that spokesperson and that I should be the face of the movement. So, one minute I'm organizing a program for women peace-builders and the next minute I am the leader of a mass action campaign of over 2,500 women.
Q: Leymah, the Christian and Muslim women worked together, which is pretty surprising. What kind of relationship did the women have in Liberia prior to this?
LG: We always had a good relationship on the surface. The Christian-Muslim thing never really became an issue until we started working together on that first campaign.
It was called the Peace Outreach Project, and it was meant to raise awareness among women. It was then that we realized there were tensions underneath. The women were saying things like, "These Muslim women are the reason we weren't successful in this community." Or they'd say, "These Christian women were the reason why we didn't get this group to talk us." We decided to have a three-day roundtable meeting of Christian and Muslim women. That was when we knew we really had religious problems that we'd been sweeping under the rug for many years. Because once the women were inside the room, automatically it was Christians on one side and Muslims on the other side. It became an issue of Christian and Muslim. But by the time we started using phrases like "Does the bullet know a Christian from a Muslim?" And we asked, "How many Christians have died?" and "How many Muslims have died?" And "Are soldiers asking if you are a Christian and a Muslim before they rape you?" All of these things really got to them, especially the Christian women. They were the ones who felt their faith would be diluted if they worked with the Muslim women. What we did was bring in two older women who had been friends for over fifty years. One a Christian and one a Muslim. In their community they had been condemned as witches. And we brought them to sit and tell their stories of how their friendship, minus their faith, kept the two of them going. And that hammered in the message that if the women had the chance to succeed they needed to forget about religion and realize they shared similar problems and issues.
Q: Were men present when ideas were being talked about?
LG: Not at all. Not at all! The beauty of the work that we did was that we did it on our own. We were bringing women into the movement who always had consulted with their husbands. We convinced women to come on board and prepared them to mix with the larger group. By using terms like "Women Building Bridges for Reconciliation," and "Christian-Muslim Women Working Together for Peace," we got women to say, "We can do this."
DP: Near the end of the movie, you say, "We did the unimaginable." Talk about the importance of that line. Leymah: Well, in my mind until tomorrow I think no one thought that we could sustain a protest for two-and-a-half years. No one. It was unimaginable. No one thought that with little education and with all of the problems we had, we could challenge the structure. It was unimaginable, too. There were other unimaginable things that we did that the video didn't capture. Like going to the transitional chairman one morning and walking straight into his office and saying, "Sit down. We need to talk about corruption in your government." And going to the Minister of Commerce very early one morning with ten women after the Minister had refused to release papers on taxation on rice that the transitional government had done. He refused to give it to the transitional Parliament, he refused to give it to the press. We got there that morning and sat with him for three hours and at the end he gave us all of those documents. So, those were unimaginable things. Places that we never thought we would go, we went. Like in the rural areas where women went into the bushes and brought combatants out and told them, "In order for you to reintegrate you have to sit down and we will cut your hair and then you can go back to your community." I talk about it from the point of traveling to all fifteen counties of Liberia and working with women from these different parts, through the tears, through the happiness, and doing unimaginable things. I will give one last example of the unimaginable. There was this night when violence had broken out in the provincial city of Gbamga, in Central Liberia. And the women from Totota took a bus and walked to a checkpoint in Gbamga and the Pakistani troops told them, "You cannot go in. It is terrible." And these women said, "We're going in." And the troops said, "We will not safeguard your lives." And they said, "We're going in." So, with white cloths waving while singing songs of praises to God, both Christian and Muslim women went in.
The fights stopped. All of the looting, all of the disturbances stopped. And these women walked to the middle of that town in the middle of the night, and told them, "You will stop fighting tonight." And they went, "Why should we stop?" They said, "Because we are here to tell you that we need to live our lives in peace." And they said, "Okay. Let's listen to them." After they listened all night to the preaching and talking, and the reading from the Koran and the Bible. The next morning these women had a big cook out for these fighters. And that was the end of the fighting. So those were unimaginable things that we don't capture on camera. But communities remember that the women stepped out and did the unimaginable.
Q: I didn't see anybody with a clerical collar or an imam in the picture. Was it just the case of the women coming from the churches and the mosques and doing it themselves?
LG: No. The women from the mosques had to get the blessings of the imam before they came. Liberia was such a political place. I mean a real political place. When we started the protests, Charles Taylor had two wives--one Christian and one Muslim. And his Muslim wife was a very powerful woman. And she went on the radio and said the Muslim women who were joining the movement were not actual Muslims, but outcasts. She had so much to say. The very next day that got a response from the archbishop of the Catholic Church. He was a big ally of ours. He called me every morning to give me strength. He would speak our native language and say, "You have to be strong, Leymah, Don't give up." He went to all of the political leaders and asked all of them to contribute cash to our movement. He was out there for us. When he heard Charles Taylor's wife's statement, he called the chief imam of Liberia and said, "I want you to meet us on the airfield tomorrow." They met there and the archbishop, who was the president of the Liberian Council of Churches at the time, endorsed the movement. The imam came back and said, "Any Muslim woman that doesn't join this movement is going to be held accountable." By the next day we got Muslim women from all over. It was amazing. So, he kind of just dismissed Taylor's wife. And every time we had programs, he was there. We honored him I don't know how many times. I think he was getting tired of getting honors from the women of Liberia! The archbishop, unfortunately, suffered a stroke. When we ended the mass action campaign at the end of the election, before going to the official ground where we had started, we went to his house. And that was the most depressing moment for me. Here was someone who had been so energetic and full of life and so encouraging, and now he's sitting in a wheelchair, not being able to speak and struggling to remember me. Everyone brought me forward and it was like "Bishop, this is Leymah." And he had this puzzled look on his face. And I just cried and cried and cried. But at the end of the entire program at his house, the nurse who was taking care of him said, "Go back to him." And I went back and he opened his eyes and smiled like, "Now I get it." And then he made a motion with hands that said "come and hold me," so I hugged him. Afterward I went back to him because we had to get the blessing of this archbishop. In the film you saw us using the St. Peter's Lutheran Church. That church always said, "Our doors are open." But every church collected money on Sundays and brought it to us on Mondays at the airfield. So the churches and the mosques were really, really supportive of the work that we did.
GR: I just want to add that that the St. Peter's Lutheran Church is where the massacre took place at the beginning of the war, when 600 people, including Charles Taylor's father, was massacred.
AD: And the scene where they are lighting candles is a memorial of the massacre over the mass grave of the people.
Q: What are your goals for this film?
AD: I believed from the beginning that this story could really move people to act. I always feared that the mainstream industry people would have difficulty seeing past the fact that it was about Africa and about women. But I knew that it would be greeted with enormous enthusiasm by people who really need to have examples of courage and moral clarity and so forth. So from very early on, we have been either taking or sending it to women's organizations around the world. Partly to test the theory that it is universal and my theory that it is a call to action. It's played in Bosnia, Georgia, Cambodia, Peru, Nairobi, Chile, Nairobi, Zimbabwe; I showed it to two hundred indigenous women from Canada. I could go on and on. Women in Iraq e-mailed us to ask how many copies of the move they could make. Women in Sudan e-mailed us and said seeing the film had changed people's lives. It's been an unbelievable thing. I want to cry just thinking about it. I think the film has a real capacity to really catalyze and coalesce what is a kind of inchoate global women's movement. It's always sort of been lying there and we've been looking for the thread to pull it together. I think this story may be the beginning of that thread. I really believe that everybody wants to be a peace-builder when they come out of this film. So we're building a website right now called and we're hoping to be able to bring people into this website and offer them some ideas for how to find organizations that need their help. And I'd love to build that into something large, maybe even some sort of clearinghouse for people who are new to activism and want to reach out to the communities and people that need help. So there are big plans.

Captions and Photo credits:
Portrait of Leymah Gbowee: Michael Angelo for Wonderland
Liberian women demonstrate at the American Embassy in Monrovia at the height of the civil war in July 2003: Pewee Flomoku
Director Gini Reticker (left) and Producer Abigail E. Disney (right): Greg Kessler
President of Liberia Charles Taylor: APTN
Liberian women protest in front of UN Envoy at Mamba Point Monrovia Liberia: Pewee Flomoku

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