Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink
Release date: 07/28/2015
Uplifting, disheartening, inspiring, enraging — the mind reels while watching the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” even as the eyes water, the temples pound and the body trembles. Directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail E. Disney, this no-frills, no-nonsense inquiry into human beings at their absolute worst and heartening best charts the overlooked victory of the Liberian women’s peace movement. Even those who think they know the story of modern Liberia may be surprised at what they discover.
Largely pieced together from archival images — including some scenes of deeply disturbing violence — news reports and talking-head interviews, the movie takes off in 2003, when a group of Liberian women pushed their peacemaking tactics into a far more aggressive, confrontational register. Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, the country had spiraled into unfathomable chaos after years of civil war. The former warlord turned president, Charles Taylor, was fending off competing rebel leaders who, using child soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs and zonked out on drugs, were steadily bleeding Liberia to death. Putting aside their religious differences, Christian and Muslim women decided to fight the murderers with peace.
Dressed in white, the women gathered in a field in the nation’s capital, Monrovia, and prayed and sang, dancing under the hot sun and in the hard rain and demanding a meeting with the president. Though some of their strategies, in specific a threat to withhold sex, at times recall Aristophanes’ comic play “Lysistrata,” their story is steeped in blood and tears. If anything, the movie only skims the surface of the Liberian tragedy, which comes most unbearably into focus here with a story about a woman who was forced to watch as her husband’s throat was cut. At 72 minutes, the movie can only gesture at the horror and its historical antecedents, offering up a quick sketch of moments and portraits that demand greater detail.
I wish, for instance, that the filmmakers had spent more time with Asatu Bah Kenneth, a vision of the modern African woman that defies easy categorization. A police officer whose ample bosom gives her the aspect of a well-fortified citadel, Ms. Kenneth is a Muslim who wears pants to work and a head scarf to the mosque. She’s a terrifically appealing interview subject, but, like the other teary and defiant testifiers, remains frustratingly obscure. The filmmakers seem to take it as a matter of faith that building a peace movement on a gender divide can work because men make war, and women make peace. It’s a reassuring idea, perhaps, though the image of Ms. Kenneth in her police uniform suggests that the world is more complicated.
PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Gini Reticker; director of photography, Kirsten Johnson; produced by Abigail E. Disney; released by Balcony Releasing. At the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 12 minutes. This film is not rated.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
StarsJanet Johnson Bryant, Etweda Cooper, Vaiba Flomo, Leymah Gbowee, Asatu Bah Kenneth
Running Time1h 12m
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Last updated: Nov 2, 2017