'Pray the Devil Back to Hell'

By Becky Garrison 5-09-2008

The following is an interview with Abigail Disney, producer of the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which recently won the award for best documentary feature at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.

What sparked your interest in wanting to make a documentary about Liberia?

The fact that the newly elected president of Liberia was a woman was notable, especially since the continent had had so few women in leadership, and that women had been so peculiarly and sadistically targeted during their war. I knew there had to be a backstory. She hadn't just arisen spontaneously.

How were Christian and Muslim women able to come together for a common cause?

They were all so completely fed up with war that they were willing to overcome their reluctance. There was some mistrust at first, but the longer they spent time together in prayer and fasting the more they came to understand and empathize with each other. Friendships were forged on the field that will exist for a long time-it is quite possible that the nature of the relationship between Christian and Muslim was forever changed in Liberia.

Elaborate on the role that religious leaders played in helping to bring about peace to Liberia.

While it may seem unlikely, the fact is that the warlords and even Charles Taylor were quite religious. Religious leaders therefore were among the only people who could influence them, even in the chaotic atmosphere of war. But women were dissatisfied with the limited way in which the religious leaders wielded that influence. So the campaign really began with the women bringing pressure on the leaders via their religious confidants. This pressure ultimately was one of the reasons Taylor and the rebels decided to come to peace talks in Ghana.

How did prayer inform these women's social justice actions?

All of the women in this film were deeply, deeply religious and believed with all of their hearts and minds in the power of prayer to influence events and people. This was a critical aspect of their plan, and a big part of what made them so tenacious and persistent in their protests. But more than this, prayer was a source of personal strength to each of the women. They gained strength through their individual practice of prayer, but also the communal practice of prayer was an extraordinary glue that held the group together in spite of all kinds of pressures to pull them apart.

Explain the significance of the Lutheran church that you filmed for this documentary.

St. Peter's Lutheran Church was the scene of the first organizing meeting for the Christian Women's Peace Initiative, early in the film. In 1989, however, that church was also the scene of one of the most horrific massacres in the pre-war period. Samuel Doe's army, in anticipation of Charles Taylor's assault on Monrovia, went into the church and slaughtered more than 600 members of a rival ethnic group in a single night. The candlelight vigil in the middle of the film takes place on the church compound on top of the mass grave that contains most of those bodies. The church was and still is the church that Leymah Gbowee attended, and a source of great strength and counsel to her. It was also through the Lutheran Church that WIPNET, her organization, got offices and also got its first international donations.

Why is Leymah Gbowee the focal character of your story?

Everyone acknowledged her to be the leader and the face of the peace movement. But more than this, Leymah was so clearly charismatic, articulate, and genuine that I knew that a film with her at the center could not fail to be compelling. She is one of the most gifted people I have ever met.

What can we do to enable this change to continue without imposing our Western values on this culture?

I think you are precisely right here. Why do we insist on imposing "solutions" that are always at best temporary, and at worst impractical and even disrespectful to indigenous cultures? I think at heart we are sometimes deeply mistrustful of the competence of indigenous cultures to find their own answers. And when we impose programs, very often we do so in such a manner as to set them hunting for external money that is scarce, inadequate, and hard to get. The answer is to do some better listening. As people coming in from the global North we need to arrive in places with a little less confidence in our "answers" and a little more confidence in the people we are there to serve. People aren't poor because they don't have values, don't have smarts, don't have gumption-people are poor because they don't have money. We need to recognize that most of the "resources" needed to fight the world's problems are also the victims of those problems.

What's been the response when you've shown this film?

The response has been overwhelmingly emotional, connected, and positive. And this is not just from people in the U.S. We have already shown the film in many countries to women's groups and the response has been so moving. Women in Iraq wept when they saw it, and immediately asked how many copies they could make so as to make sure that it is shown in people's homes all over the country. Women from Sudan e-mailed us to say that they felt sure that lives were being changed by the dialogues the film had sparked. In Tblisi, Georgia, women sat down immediately after the film and wrote up a Peace Agenda that is now making its way around the country for women's signatures. What is remarkable is the way that so many women were already poised to work together for peace-all the film does is remind them how powerful they are when they work together. It is a spark of faith in dark times.

What are the future plans for this documentary and how can interested churches and nonprofits arrange for showings of this film?

We hope to work with churches and other religious organizations along with youth groups, women's organizations, and other interested partners to get the film seen far and wide. At the moment we are still forming distribution plans, but churches that are interested in seeing the film should go to our Web site and give us their information so that when we are set up for distribution we can get in touch with them.

Becky Garrison will be featured in the upcoming documentary The Ordinary Radicals, directed by Jamie Moffett, co-founder of The Simple Way.

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