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Have Hope! Women Create Peace in Liberia

Director Gini Reticker opens up about Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the audacious, inspiring, brave, and moving story of the women who stopped Liberia's war through civil disobedience.
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What you can do:


Gini Reticker: End the violence against women. Get involved in peace work, from Liberia to around the world.


Visit: the official website, where you can connect with peace organizations all over the world.


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If it wasn't for a softball game in the Westchester suburbs, the stirring documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell—the inspiring story of a group of Liberian women who brought peace to their war-torn country—may not have taken shape. But producer Abigail E. Disney and Oscar-nominated director Gini Reticker reconnected while watching their daughters at bat, and soon after, both women were traveling to Liberia to put this story on film.


The result is a moving testament to the power of peacework in the most horrifying of times, as the country was led by a violent dictator (Charles Taylor) and vulnerable to the savagery and terror of rebel warlords and their child soliders. A sensation at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, the film won the prize for the Best Documentary Feature. In a recent phone interview with Tribeca, Reticker, who was due to travel to Brazil for the San Paolo Film Festival the next day, talked candidly about the struggle of making this film, its reception, the strength of these women, and what you can do to help.


What has reaction to the film at Tribeca and other places?


Gini Reticker
: It was totally amazing. Tribeca was the first time we showed the film to an audience. I'm a New York filmmaker and I had never been at Tribeca, so it was really wonderful to show it for a hometown audience. The film's played all over the world because the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, came to the screening. She gave some interviews afterwards and people in Liberia were aware of it right away, and within a week we were playing in Liberia. We've gone around the world with this and have played in places like Jerusalem, Afghanistan, and Darfur, and a lot of our showings were through women's groups.


What's Liberia like? Was it dangerous to film there?


: Liberia is still a pretty rough place. There's no running water in the entire country, no electricity, any electricity runs on generators. It's the result of war. The infrastructure is completely shot, but things are so much better now than they were during the war. But even when we were trying to make a montage about how great life is now, it doesn't read visually. We worked with local people. We were shooting with the deputy chief of police, so that helped. We were immediately welcomed by everybody. The women are very loved there.


It's a very complicated situation in Liberia and these women have amazing stories. Was there anything in particular that you had to cut?


: This story is not even the half of it! The war went on for fourteen years. I just decided to tell it from 1996 on. I really had to streamline it. I did not want to use a narrator—I wanted the women to speak for themselves and tell their own stories. Each of the women had incredible personal stories, but if you got too into their stories, it would take away from the women coming together, the story of a group of women. I had to sacrifice a lot of what I wanted to put in the film. Film is a very simple medium and you have to cut cut cut cut and simplify.


You used a lot of found footage in the film, both of the women and of Taylor. What kind of work was it to find this footage?

: It was a huge job. It was fairly easy to find war footage but impossible find footage of the women. Journalists said, "I saw those women on the field but they were so boring and pathetic looking, so I didn't shoot them." We got some of it from Ghana TV, but a lot of the tapes were recorded over.


For the Taylor footage, we talked to Taylor's videographer at the executive mansion. They forced him into the job—one day in particular, he was terrified, he didn't want to go film Taylor, but his people literally hunted him down, put him on the plane, and put a camera in his hands. [Then one day,] they fired him, and when he left he took all the video with him. {When you meet him today,] he's like an invisible person. He could melt away.

Can you tell me more about Janet Johnson Bryant, the journalist [one of the many brave Liberian women who participated in the Women in Peacebuilding Network and the Liberian Mass Action for Peace]? Her job sounded quite dangerous. She's now living in Lowell, Massachusetts?


: She married a guy who's living here and she's working with African refugees. She left the country mid-war. Reporting on Taylor was risky, and she and her colleagues had been bullied, threatened, beaten up, and some were killed. Her life was threatened—she had heard rumors and whispers, and she had to leave one day when she came home and her house was ransacked and her pets were killed.

giniWhat are you doing next?


Working on a four-part series on public TV about women, war, and peace. War isn't being fought in the traditional way that we conceive of it. There are warlords and thugs fighting over control and by attacking women, they're attacking the entire fabric of society. It's not about standing armies and conventional arms. There are more civilians killed in war. One place I'm going to is the Congo. It's a big subject. Colombia, there's more displaced people in Colombia in any place other than the Sudan. I'm going to be dealing with such horrifying subjects. Thank God my husband produces 30 Rock so there's a lot of joy in the house. Thank God there's laughter in my house.


What's Leymah Gbowee [one of the central characters, in traditional dress, above] doing now?


She started a pan-African woman's peace network. One of her projects is training security officers in Sierra Leone. She's really a committed peace activist. She's a dynamite speaker and a gifted leader. Whatever audience we were in front of [with the film], she was able to change the tone of her speech to affect that particular group of people.


What do you want people to take away from this film?


These women weren't like presidents, governors, political leaders. They were regular people, secretaries, journalists, and social workers. Their backs were up against the wall. The hope would be that we don't have to have our backs up against the wall before we take action.


Discover: the singular strength and courage of Leymah Gbowee at a Pray press conference, discussing the work that these women did to make change in Liberia.


Take the women in your life to Pray the Devil Back to Hell, in limited release on November 7th.
In New York, see the film at Cinema Village.


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