Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Directed by Gini Reticker. New York: Roco Films Educational, 2008.
Women’s collective action in Africa has a long and well-documented history, from anticolonial uprisings in Nigeria1 to peace initiatives in Somalia2 to women’s increased involvement in contemporary political affairs.3 Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary by Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker, explores one of the most recent and celebrated mobilizations of women, that of women from different classes, religions, and backgrounds in Liberia who came together to protest the horrific violence in their country and demand that president Charles Taylor, “warlords,” and armed men on all sides of the dispute resolve their differences, renounce violence, and work together for peace. This remarkable film intercuts documentary footage, news reports, retrospective interviews with women leaders, and brief historical synopses to trace the origins of the civil war, the increasingly desperate situations of everyday people, and the brave efforts of a few Christian and Muslim women to organize themselves and eventually thousands of other women to stop the violence and, later, elect the first woman president in Africa: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The film (which won Best Documentary at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival) is tremendously engaging, at once uplifting and disturbing. By demonstrating the power of ordinary women to change their world, it speaks to such feminist themes as gendered agency, maternal activism, collective action, women as peacemakers, and women in conflict and post-conflict societies. That said, feminist teachers should consider complicating the stark dichotomy between violent men and peace-seeking women and the seemingly idyllic relations between elite and non-elite women.
The DVD has two versions, 60 minutes and 72 minutes (the extended version provides more background about Charles Taylor, the opposition, and the ex-combatants) and includes a very useful discussion guide (with suggested discussion questions, activities, and resources). Much of the footage is explicit and possibly distressful, and without proper classroom preparation, could reinforce prevalent stereotypes of men (especially African men) as inherently violent. Depending on the course and topic, I would suggest providing some background materials on the origins of the civil war,4 the dynamics of gender relations in Liberia5, comparative examples of African women’s collective action (cited earlier), or excerpts from Sirleaf’s engaging memoir about her experiences of the war and rise to power. 6
1 Judith Van Allen, “‘Sitting on a Man’: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 6, no. 2 (1972): 165-81.
2 Asha Hagi Elmi, Dekha Ibrahim, and Janice Jenner, “Women’s Roles in Peacemaking in Somali Society,” in Rethinking Pastoralism in Africa: Gender, Culture, and the Myth of the Patriarchal Pastoralist, ed. Dorothy L. Hodgson, 121-141 (Oxford: James Currey Press, 2000).
3 Filomina Chioma Steady, Women and Collective Action in Africa: Development, Democratization, and Empowerment, with Special Focus on Sierra Leone (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Aili Mari Tripp, Isabel Casimiro, Joy Kwesiga, and Alice Mungwa, African Women’s Movements: Transforming Political Landscapes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
4 Mary H. Moran, Liberia: The Violence of Democracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
5 Mary H. Moran, Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).
6 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child Will be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President (New York: Harper, 2009).