How do you oust an African dictator in the midst of a bloody, interminable civil war? If armed insurrection leaps to mind, think again. Liberia's Charles Taylor got his comeuppance from a cadre of Christian and Muslim women whose peaceful protests ended the warlord's reign of terror and forced him into exile.
Gini Reticker's rousing documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" is an uppercut to Lucifer's jaw, an object lesson in interfaith cooperation and an instructional manual for people committed to making systemic political change through nonviolent means.
The film is a straightforward account of Liberia's Women's Peace Initiative, which arose in the late 1990s in response to national chaos. Rival militia leaders, driven by ethnic factionalism, hunger for power and outright greed, armed men and boys to exterminate their adversaries. Rape and looting were widespread. An estimated 1 million Liberians became refugees; about 250,000 were killed.
Reticker's handheld camera bobbles along beside crowds fleeing their villages in anguish. Their experience finds a compelling representative in Leymah Gbowee, who recalled her famished 3-year-old son's request for a piece of doughnut, and her anger at not being able to provide it. Gbowee recruited women from her church to pray for peace. Attendance at the meetings grew, and word of their determination reached Asatu Bah Kenneth, assistant director of the Liberian National Police, and she took up their cause in her mosque.
Soon the women had formed a rare interdenominational coalition. They began to stage highly visible sit-ins, wearing white T-shirts as their uniform and carrying placards demanding an end to the killing. They pressured their husbands, denying the men sex until they took action against the war, as well. They went so far as to stage a peaceful human blockade at the hotel where fruitless initial peace talks were held, refusing to clear the way until the delegates came up with real solutions. When she was threatened with arrest, Gbowee retaliated with the threat that she would strip naked on the spot, a deeply shameful act that sent police scurrying. Encouraged by the growing public support for the women, Taylor's opponents pushed hard for his removal. Today the war is a memory, Liberia has elected its first female head of state and Taylor is on trial for war crimes at the Hague.
The 72-minute film's account of the populist uprising leaves some questions unanswered. Why did the ruthless Taylor permit the protesters to oppose him? Was he worried about the international reaction if he turned his guns on the women, or uncertain how to handle a coalition that crossed religious and ethnic barriers? Where the film succeeds is as a portrait of everyday heroines who brought down a Goliath. It's an experience that can't be shrugged off.