LU honors filmmaker for documentary on Liberia’s unsung heroes

Pray the Devil Back to Hell poster

Written for The Post-Crescent March 15, 2010

The documentary film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” illustrates how ordinary people can cause incredible change when they band together. Abigail Disney, the producer behind the award-winning film, will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Lawrence University on Thursday.

“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” tells the story of how a group of Liberian women helped end a bloody civil war through prayer, peaceful protest and pure determination.

During the war between the forces of president Charles Taylor and the rebel group that opposed him, both sides committed horrific acts against the people of Liberia. Thousands were displaced and fled their homes to refugee camps because of the violence. Many others were raped or had limbs amputated. Young boys were used as soldiers and fed addictive drugs to coerce them into service. It’s estimated 300,000 people died during the two civil wars from 1989 to 2003.

Disney and director Gini Reticker made it their mission to make a film showing how the war came to an end. The story is told through the voices of the women who pressured the warring factions to finally hold peace talks.

Abigail Disney interviewed by writer Kasey Steinbrinck for Post-Crescent
Producer Abigail Disney

“It just amazed me that I had never heard of it before,” said Disney of what the women accomplished. “Right in front of my eyes, I could see it being forgotten.”

She learned about the bravery of the women while visiting Liberia in support of the nation’s current and first female president, Ellen Sirleaf. Sirleaf’s election was also aided by the actions of the Liberian women.

Disney is the grandniece of Walt Disney and has dedicated much of her life to philanthropic work. That includes work with the Roy Disney Family Foundation and the Global Fund for Women, and she is president of the Daphne Foundation in New York City.

“She came to our attention principally because of the film, which had received a lot of critical acclaim,” Lawrence professor of government Claudena Skran said.

“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” has won numerous awards, including best documentary at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival in 2008. It was also featured on the PBS program, “The Bill Moyers Journal,” last year.

LU held several screenings of the film throughout January. The final showing will take place in the Warch Campus Center cinema at 1 p.m. Thursday. It will be followed by a Q&A session with Disney. Before the screening, Disney will receive her honorary degree and deliver a convocation titled “Peace is Loud” at 11:10 a.m. in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel.

“I’ve heard very positive reactions from students,” Skran said. “I think the students were very interested in learning about that region and about the role of this group in ending the war.”

The leader of that group of women was social worker Leymah Gbowee. Disney describes Gbowee as a middle class woman who’s life went downhill during Liberia’s civil war.

In the film, Gbowee says she had a dream in which she was commissioned to gather the women of her church together to work for peace. She started a movement involving hundreds of women who lined the street the former president traveled every morning.

Wearing white T-shirts and holding signs with peace slogans, the women would stand and sing by the road day after day. Eventually, Gbowee took a delegation of women to peace talks in Ghana. The women used their numbers to barricade leaders inside.

“It stunned me how courageous these women had been,” Disney said. She also saw courage in the women when it came to dealing with religion in Liberia. While the movement began in a Christian church, Muslim women also were a part of the protests from the beginning. Muslims and Christians stood side-by-side in prayer, focusing on their shared goal for peace and forgiveness.

Both Disney and LU’s Skran hope “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” will inspire those who see it.

“On one level I think it shows that individual groups can make a difference in politics,” said Skran, who has spent time in both Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone. “Secondly … people in the United States have a lot to learn from the courageous political activities taking place in other countries.”

“People have really felt charged up and ready to try something,” Disney said. “Whether it’s picking up litter on the sidewalk or helping an old lady cross the street or something more heroic like protesting a war.”