Dancing With The Devil Documentary Review Essay



Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink

Juliana Barbassa. Touchstone, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5625-7
After a two-decade absence, Barbassa returned to her native Brazil in 2010 as the Associated Press’s Rio de Janeiro correspondent, providing the impetus for this overstuffed but fascinating urban chronicle. She arrived just in time for a confrontation between the Pacification Police Units and the Red Command gang, which ruled the favelas. Barbassa reports on the 2011 flood that claimed 1,000 lives; the 2012 closing of one of South America’s largest landfills, the Gramacho; and the “world’s largest gay wedding” in 2013. She speaks to “anyone who would speak to [her]: taxi drivers, university researchers, cops who wouldn’t give their names, local crime reporters,” as well as politicians, government officials, gang members, environmentalists, restaurateurs, shipyard managers, notaries, and barbers. In between visiting favelas and gated communities, Barbassa touches on issues broad (taxes, immigration, prostitution, homosexuality) and narrow (her own housing problems). So many people and subjects move through the book’s pages that the portrait of “this southern giant” becomes cluttered. Expert as Barbassa is with words, the book’s breadth can feel like a liability. But even readers whose interest flags at times will come away with a sense of having been there. Agent: David Halpern, Robbins Office. (July)
Reviewed on: 03/30/2015
Release date: 07/28/2015
Open Ebook - 384 pages - 978-1-4767-5627-1
Paperback - 352 pages - 978-1-4767-5626-4

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.


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

  • DirectorGini Reticker

  • StarsJanet Johnson Bryant, Etweda Cooper, Vaiba Flomo, Leymah Gbowee, Asatu Bah Kenneth

  • RatingNot Rated

  • Running Time1h 12m

  • GenreDocumentary

  • Movie data powered by IMDb.com
    Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
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