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Community cinema: Women pray the devil and overthrow a government

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2011 - "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" explores Liberia through the eyes of women - Christian and Muslims - who united in the midst of a bloody civil war, took on the violent warlords and corrupt Charles Taylor regime, and won a long-awaited peace for their country in 2003. The documentary will open the Community Cinema Series, sponsored the Nine Network of Public Media. ITVS and this Thursday at the Missouri History Museum

"Pray the Devil Back to Hell" demonstrates that nonviolent resistance can be successful, even where the best efforts of conventional diplomacy have failed. In one memorable scene, the women barricaded the site of delayed peace talks in Ghana, and announced they would not move until an agreement was made. Faced with expulsion, they used the most powerful weapon in their arsenal - threatening to remove their clothes. It worked.

Producer Abigail Disney heard about the stories of these women when she spent time in Liberia and wanted to find a way to show what they did to a wider audience. Disney had to persuade director Gini Reticker that this story was not another bleak, violence against woman film from Liberia but one that was truly amazing and had unfortunately not been picked up by the international news.

After Reticker met Leymah Gbowee, one of the main characters in the film, Disney and Reticker knew they could tell this story. Leymah Gbowee "is very charismatic, well spoken and remembers everything in such incredible detail," says Disney, who is still very close with her.

However, getting footage was not easy either. Major news outlets like the BBC and CNN, which were there at the time of these women's demonstrations, did not pick up this story and instead spent their energy filming the bloody civil war. "We typed in every key word imaginable to try to find what we could and came up with nothing."

"Finally at an NGO in Ghana, someone noticed there was a video tape holding up a window," said Disney, "It been exposed to sunlight and rain but the 3-4 minutes that we used from that tape were some of the most powerful footage in the film." Little by little more tape was found and confirmed everything in Ghowee's story.

Not only did their demonstrations culminate in the exile of Charles Taylor but they led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first female head of state, and marked the vanguard of a new wave of women taking control of their political destiny around the world.

"Pray the Devil Back to Hell" is one of the five-part PBS television series Women, War & Peace.  This series spotlights the stories of women in conflict zones from Bosnia to Afghanistan, and Colombia to Liberia, placing women at the center of an urgent dialogue about conflict and security and reframing our understanding of modern warfare. Women, War & Peace is a co-production of THIRTEEN and Fork Films.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell will be screened at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1 at the Missouri History Museum, as part of the Community Cinema Series, a partnership among the museum, ITVS and the Nine Network of Public Media, followed by a Q&A session featuring producer Abigail Disney.

Rosa Dudman Mayer is a freelance writer.

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