Pray the Devil Back to Hell is such an exceptional documentary, transcending mere fact telling to provide a shocking occasion of human affirmation. In a shorthand of crisp but telling images and interviews, the 2008 film, recently released on DVD, tells us of the remarkable victory had by a Liberian peace movement. The movement was led by women in the face of a civil war marked by brutal extremes of murder, mutilation and rape.
The movement was largely organized by Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian social worker who was able to bring Christian and Muslim women together with such determined and growing force. Armed with white T-shirts and prayer, and using one of the oldest bargaining tools in the world — sex — the women took on the warlords and helped bring an end to the civil war being fought by the monstrous Charles Taylor. Taylor was a dictator, it is true, but it should be noted that he was no more cruel than the rebel forces focused on removing him from power. War is like that.
The award-winning film proves what Picasso felt was the deeper identity of war — no matter the ideology, the nation involved or even the religion, there is a consistent connection true to all conflicts. That connection is the slaughter of the innocents. Those who fight wars rarely recognize the individual humanity of their victims.
Guns and bombs will kill, wound and mutilate whomever is available, or just happens to be, as it is said, in the wrong place at the wrong time. That wrong place for women is anywhere that battle takes place. In the blood-spewing theater of war, rape is yet another weapon used against the innocent.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell, directed by Gini Reticker, moves the viewer from heartbreak to a feeling of unexpected affirmation in a time when human cruelty is on daily display on the international stage. These women of Liberia decided to rouse their courage and stand up in the face of the devil they knew so well he could have been a close relative. In the film, each of the women interviewed speaks simply of right and wrong; they realized that civil war was destroying their country. And they realized that it was destroying them as well; they had become were sexual pawns in a man's war.
The women knew that nonviolence is as effective as munitions are when used at the right time and under the right conditions. Nonviolence, however, is not an automatic solution. It would not have worked for Jews during the Nazi regime because nonviolent resistance would only have been defined as clear proof of their expected cowardice. No form of resistance would have worked. The only choice was to walk calmly into the gas chambers.
But in Liberia, so many children were groomed to be murderers, rapists and looters. The women, led by Gwobee, came to see these child soldiers for what they actually were: children. Gbowee and the other women did not see themselves as angels or the child soldiers as devils. These armed boys are recognized as victims of the men who used them as flesh and blood tools of terror. Both Taylor, the dictator, and the rebels used the same tactics. Both gave them drugs until the boys were addled exponents of sadism.
Using interviews and archival footage, the documentary illustrates how it became an ordinary occurrence to see men, women and children with their limbs chopped off or to hear the tales of women experiencing sadistic rape in situations dominated by children with high-powered weapons.
That the women were able to unite despite religious differences was an African version of an Enlightenment in which human commonality transcended tribal affiliations. The peace movement led by these women was not a sure victory from the outset, but actual courage never is.
Courage does not back up because of the odds against it. The will to bravery was all that the women had besides a substantial sense of how right they were to demand a stop to the violence of a civil war with no rules. Under such circumstances, ''all is possible,'' as a Dostoevsky character timelessly said.
The film ends with the observation that a palpable result of the non-violent movement was the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman president in all of what is called ''black'' Africa. Those Africans and others who believed that Africa was doomed to forever sink beneath corruption and violence need to take a drink of water and walk around the block. The impossible was done by everyday people, the kind of individuals who always do what must be done — here, there and everywhere. Worldwide praise would not be an overreaction.
As Leymah Gbowee concludes, these women will be back if things go badly again. Even murderous dictators and rebels seeking the putrid wealth that comes of sustained corruption know better than to mess with them. Pray the Devil Back to Hell gives us a good look at how and why the Christian and Muslim women, finally, earn the respect of their countrymen. They have learned why, when and how to stand up for essential human interest.
More than mythical goddesses, those inspirational women remain determined to do what must be done if men, women and children are to live civilized lives. No matter where they happen to live in the world.
Stanley Crouch is an essayist and columnist based in New York. He has been awarded a MacArthur and a Fletcher and was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The first volume of his Charlie Parker biography will appear within a year.