Pray the Devil Back to Hell is the gripping account of a group of brave and visionary women who demanded peace for Liberia, a nation torn to shreds by a decades old civil war. The women’s historic, yet unsung achievement finds voice in a narrative that intersperses contemporary interviews, archival images, and scenes of present-day Liberia together to recount the experiences and memories of the women who were instrumental in bringing lasting peace to their country.
Gini Reticker (Director) is an Emmy-winning, Academy Award-nominated documentary director and producer. She produced the Academy Award nominated short Asylum and the Emmy nominated A Decade Under the Influence. Directing for the PBS series “Wide Angle,” Reticker took home an Emmy and the Society for Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for Ladies First, which focused on the role of women in rebuilding post-genocide Rwanda. In 2006, Reticker directed The Class of 2006, for “Wide Angle,” spotlighting the first 50 women in Morocco to graduate from an imam academy in Rabat.
Her first film, The Heart of the Matter, received the Sundance Freedom of Expression Award; Out of the Darkness: Women and Depression garnered both an Emmy and a Gracie Award. Before becoming a producer and director, Reticker worked as an editor on such films as Roger & Me, The Awful Truth: The Romantic Comedy, PBS American Cinema Series and the Emmy-nominated Fire From the Mountain.
Abigail E. Disney (Producer) is the Founder and the President of the Daphne Foundation. Over the years Disney has played a critical role in a number of different social and political organizations. She recently retired as Chair of The New York Women’s Foundation, of which she was a board member for over 14 years. Disney serves on the boards of the Roy Disney Family Foundation, the White House Project, the Global Fund for Women and the Fund for the City of New York, as well as the advisory boards of a broad range of organizations working in the areas of poverty, women’s issues, education and environment.
Leymah Gbowee was a 17 year-old girl when the war first came to Monrovia. As the war dragged on Gbowee had difficulty focusing on anything but her thwarted opportunities to go to college and out of bitterness she dodged any political or social involvement. But as time passed she came to see that it would be up to the citizens of Liberia, especially its women, to bring the country back from the insanity of civil war. She trained as a trauma counselor and worked with the ex-child soldiers of Taylor’s army. Joining the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), Gbowee quickly rose to the top thanks to her leadership and organizing skills. She brought all the women of the Christian churches together into a group called the Christian Women’s Initiative and began issuing a series of calls for peace. Soon she formed a coalition with the women in Monrovia’s Muslim organizations and eventually Liberian Mass Action for Peace came into being. Under Gbowee’s leadership, the group managed to force a meeting with Charles Taylor and extract a promise from him to attend peace talks in Ghana. She then led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to continue to apply pressure on the warring factions during the peace process. She has since been awarded the Blue Ribbon for Peace by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is building Women, Peace and Security Africa, a women’s peace building organization in Ghana that will act to build relationships across the West African Sub-Saharan region in support of women’s capacity to prevent, avert and end conflicts.
Bijan Tehrani: My first question is for Abigail, the producer. How did you become interested in making this film?
Abigail Disney: I became aware of this story – this is my first film—because I do some work in philanthropy and foundations, and I had gone to Liberia with a group of women who were very excited about the president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was the first women elected head of state in Africa. We were just there to see what we could do to help and support her. A byproduct of being there was hearing this amazing story. It is such a shame that it seems that I was there at the moment when it seemed to be slipping away. People were talking about it, but it wasn’t written anywhere, and it was just going to disappear if nothing were made of it. When I got back to the U.S., I thought about it and really believed that someone should make a film about it. It was about that time when I re-met Gini, whom I had known years before. She was a filmmaker and had done some beautiful films about women’s issues in Africa, including one that was nominated for an Oscar. She and I talked about it, and it just seemed like such a good fit that we had to do it.
BT: Gini, what encouraged you to make this film? Were you aware of this subject?
Gini Reticker: I knew a lot about what had gone on in Liberia. After “Asylum” was nominated for an Academy award a few years ago–it was a film about a woman from Ghana who came to the United States seeking political asylum–I began to get a lot of offers to make films in African about women’s issues. I followed a lot of things on the continent, and was aware of the conflict in Liberia. But mostly everything that I had heard involved horrible, brutal stories. I had never heard about what the women did, and it was amazing when Abby told me because I considered myself to be quite knowledgeable, but I knew nothing about this story.
BT: Leyameh Gbowee, when you learned about making a film about your movement, what were you feeling? Were you interested in becoming part of this? Also, what do you think now that the film is complete?
Leyameh Gbowee: Well, initially when the producer and director approached me, it was difficult to verify the information that they had acquired about our movement because they wanted to know whether it was really true. So they came and we talked, but I honestly didn’t have any impression of what would happen. I thought these were people who were going to write a story or something. I didn’t think that they were going to contact me again. When they came back and wrote and called, they said what they intended to do. Given Abby’s name, I was wondering maybe they wanted to make an animated version—because Abby’s last name is Disney. I was really wondering in my mind what they intended to do with this story. Looking at it now, I think that they did a very beautiful job, something that I don’t think anyone else would have been able to do.
BT: Abby, how challenging was it to make this film?
Abigail: It was challenging in some ways, and in other ways it was a pure delight. In Monrovia itself there is no electricity and no running water and there is a very high crime rate, so shooting was a challenge. But we had an amazing crew and a good team of people, so we figured it out. Archival footage was very hard to come by, and I always think of that as a big piece of the story. That is because there were plenty of pieces of footage of horrible, disturbing things like boys shooting at each other, but nothing of these women— it tells you something about what we value in the news—so we really had to be very scrappy in terms of finding the footage of the women doing what they did. We really had to use a lot of networking in Monrovia. Ultimately, we came upon a fair amount of it. That was probably the hardest thing about it. I think also that it is a bit of an uphill clime at first when you have a film about Africa, war, and women. You really have to talk people into wanting to see it. I think in the beginning, festivals maybe were a little weary about another film about Africa made by Americans. But then once we got out there, I think people understood what we were trying to accomplish and we got past that.
BT: Gini, how much did you have to rely on recreations in this film because you did not have enough archival footage?
Gini: It wasn’t exactly like recreations. For instance, one day the women went to a field, and we would shoot them in the field to intercept that into the story. I didn’t actually do recreations, more often I shot things that were actually happening and I just used them as images over somebody talking. I had archival footage for key events. We are able to find the actual footage of when the women confronted Taylor. We were able to find the exact archival footage for when the women surrounded the hall. We did find key footage. I shot other things that were happening and used it as a representation rather then recreation.
BT: Leyameh, when you watch the film, how much does it represent the reality of what you did?
Leymah: One day of our protest could be a whole documentary by itself, if we want to look at the challenges that we faced. We could go to protest and on a single day, and something dramatic would happen that we could make a documentary about. If you look at this film, I would say that it is a perfect summary of three years of work. It gives the beginning, all the critical moments, and the end. In terms of representation of what we did, I would say that it covers 85 to 90 percent.
BT: Gini, how much work did you do during the editing stage, compared to the research stage?
Gini: I spent about three months doing research, about eight months doing editing, and about a month shooting.
BT: Wow, so there is a lot of work that must be done during the editing in order to create the structure to this film.
Gini: Definitely. A tremendous amount of work took place in the editing room.
BT: Do you think this film has a good chance for success in the United States and Europe?
Abigail: I think that if it weren’t for me, it would have been very hard finding a distributor, because—again—of the uphill climb. These are things that generally mainstream distributors are afraid of. We are backing the distribution, and I am confident that we are going to do fine with our theatrical release, which started last Friday in New York and is rolling out in ten cities across the United States. This film has a lot of built-in constituencies; in religious communities and African American communities. It has gotten enormously positive responses from every audience we have shown it to. So I think that if we can get out there and do the grassroots marketing work, we can get people in the theater to see this film. It has really resonated for so many of the people who have seen it. I would not be doing my job if I didn’t do my best to make sure it got out there.
Gini: We got held over for a week in New York after a great weekend opening, so I think this goes to what Abby was talking about. And she is a source of nature! [laughs]
BT: Leyameh, I have another question for you. There are many places around the world where women are deeply oppressed and need to find a way out. How much do you think women around the world could learn from your movement?
Leymah: Well, first I would like to answer another question, which is how much I learned from other women around the world when we started this movement. I had read about the Nigerian women who protested in the Niger Delta at one of the oil plants, and how they held the top guys in the oil company hostage, telling them they would not free them until the children got jobs and they got some benefits. That was one of the most amazing stories I have read. I also read another story in a magazine that told the story of women across the line from the former USSR, and how one community had electricity and the other had water. These women used to plug their washers and dryers, and they would share stories and talk about their children. I just remember going back to that article, and for a very long time, most of my speeches and presentations were centered on these readings. So those acts that women did in those communities really informed what we did. It is my hope that this film will speak to people not just on issues of war and violence, but also on everyday issues. I hope this film will mobilize women to request basic things like Medicare, educations grant for their children, and HIV/AIDS medication. I am hoping that even in the U.S., women would, at this crucial point, see this film as a rallying point to bring this new administration, with all its fame and glory, to accountability. I think this is something that has been lost over the last eight years. I think women’s groups were not really asking and demanding answers from their leaders. This film should be the point of conversion for women’s ideas in different parts of the world. I think it is just a great thing.
Gini: I just have to add that so rarely are war stories told from a women’s point of view. I think we lose site of what they are. It is incredibly important that we connect and see ourselves.
BT: Gini and Abby, are you planning to get your film an Academy Award nomination?
Gini: I think that is a little bit out of our hands, but of course we would love that!
Abigail: If you know anybody, make the call!