There is a lot of talk these days about change. But change doesn't happen just by talking about it. It happens when people join hands and mobilize to actually get things done. There are inspiring tales of this sort of change happening every day, across the world, but how many of them do we ever actually hear about? Thank goodness for unassuming little documentaries like Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which tell us not only that change can happen in the world, but how it can be done.
Produced by Abigail Disney and directed by Gini Reticker, Pray the Devil Back to Hell recently won the Best Documentary Award at the Heartland Film Festival. It's a quick, 72-minute glimpse inside the nation of Liberia—a country with American roots (it was a colony settled by ex-slaves from America) that is all but invisible to the average American today. It's a country that has a complicated 160-year history and has suffered through two civil wars over the last 20 years. For most movie audiences, Liberia is an exotic place they've heard mentioned on the occasional NPR brief, but otherwise know nothing about. Pray the Devil Back to Hell goes some way toward changing this.
For such a short film, Pray manages to provide a relatively comprehensible lesson in recent Liberian history. The narration by Leymah Gbowee is well written and concise, telling us of the troubles that have raged in the country at the hands of president Charles Taylor (later convicted of war crimes) and the bloody warlords who control the countryside and seek to overthrow and take over the government. In 2003, a large coalition of Liberian women banded together to put their collective foot down against the violence, staging sit-ins and human barricades to force the dueling factions to come up with a peaceful resolution. Their courage, conviction, and quiet confidence worked—and faith was arguably the biggest part of their story.
"I had a dream," Gbowee says, looking at the camera, "that someone actually telling me to get the women of the church together to pray for peace." She soon formed the Christian Women's Peace Initiative, which eventually numbered well into the thousands, joining their forces for the pursuit of peace—and all along, with much prayer and fasting.
As for the film's title, that's a reference to President Taylor's penchant for "preaching" in area churches, saying that his leadership came from "Jehovah God Almighty"—all while he's ordering terror and atrocities upon his own people. Gbowee narrates: "Taylor would pray the Devil out of hell. And we said of this man who is so 'religious,' we need to get to that thing he holds firmly to. So if the women started pressuring the pastors and the bishops, the pastors and bishops would pressure the leaders [of the warring factions, who were meeting in churches]."
Another way the women "encouraged" the men to be more active in pursuing peace: They staged a "sex strike," denying their men intimate relations until they were playing an active role in the peace process.
Certainly there are more complexities and motivations at play here, and at times the film screams for a longer running time (or a multi-part series on PBS) to do its subject justice, but Pray is not meant to be an exhaustive documentary about Liberian history. Rather, it is meant to tell a story—a rather simple story—about grassroots activism and the impact it can have. Told in a straightforward documentary style (archival footage, interviews, photos, etc.), Pray is a film with a refreshingly simple, unpretentious goal: to highlight the historic, unsung achievement of one determined band of women who sought and achieved change in their country.
It's interesting that this movie releases just days after the conclusion of one of the most exhausting political seasons in American history. While Americans have been preoccupied with polls, platforms, and Joe-the-Plumbers, obsessed about our own overlong presidential election, there is real suffering and bloodshed going on beyond our borders that is completely off our radar. What happened to Iraq? Afghanistan? Not to mention the dozens of other war-torn countries that Americans would be hard-pressed to even locate on a map. We tend not to think of these things unless we're confronted with them in films like this.
This film also reminds us how crucial the church is, and will continue to be, in making change happen in the world. Pray is chiefly a film about how faith births love, and love births change. Christian women in Liberia teamed up with Christian women across West Africa for this crusade against bloodshed, and they were joined by Muslim women as well.
One of the women interviewed for the film said, "When we started, some Christians said, being a follower of Christ, and going to work along with the Muslim means they were diluting their faith. But the message that we took on was, Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?"
Rather than an argument for syncretism, however, Pray is a model of how we might work together in love with people who the world suggests we must hate. It also puts things into perspective. It makes us think about whatever "problems" we face in our cushy, secure lives and consider if we really have cause to complain all that much. In this film, the protagonists are a group of women who have been raped or maimed, had children die from bombs or machete, or otherwise had to witness unspeakable horrors. But rather than fear or flee, they decided to do something to stop the violent status quo. They put on white clothes, staged sit-ins, sang songs, and peacefully pressured their government to give peace a chance.
"We went back to the Bible," one woman said. "We saw what Esther did for her people … saying, 'I mean it.'"
These women certainly meant it. They were a voice united to be heard, and it worked.
Though it's hard to say a harsh word about a film like this, it's certainly not beyond reproach. It would have been good if the filmmakers made more of an effort to understand why Christianity might be uniquely situated to inspire social justice and peace in the world—yet another place where a slightly longer running time might have helped. Pray also has some pacing problems, doesn't give us a lot in the way of character development, and feels at times less compelling than it might have been. It's not a mind-blowing achievement in documentary filmmaking; it's a simple and inspiring story told through the medium of film. But for what it is, it definitely gets the job done.
Note: The film is in limited release. For a list of theaters, click here.Discussion starters
- What do you think the title means? Who is the devil? A person? An idea?
- What tactics did the women use in their activism that helped them achieve success?
- Are there lessons that the American church can take from this film regarding the role of the Christian community in civic/political life?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Pray the Devil Back to Hell is not rated, but it's probably appropriate for ages 12 and up. It contains some violent images, but not as much as it could, given the subject matter. There are some truly disturbing scenes and acts of violence that are spoken of, but none are shown on screen. There are many images of maimed, malnourished, and even frightened children in the film, but nothing too graphic.
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