The heroism on view in the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" is breathtaking. It's about a band of women who, unarmed, stood up to tyrants and won. And it's all true.
Liberia, the West African country of 3 million people that was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, suffered a civil war in 1989 that gave rise to Charles Taylor, who was elected president in 1996 and rapidly descended to dictatorship. A second civil war devastated the country all over again. Rival, mostly Muslim warlords, attempting to depose Taylor, a Christian, raped and pillaged the populace. A quarter of a million people were killed; another million were displaced.
Into this horror strode women from activist Christian women's organizations. Calling themselves the Christian Women's Initiative and under the direction of Leymah Gbowee, a fiercely determined Liberian woman, these mothers, daughters, wives, and grandmothers formed an unlikely but inevitable alliance with a group calling itself the Liberian Muslim Women's Organization, created by Asatu Bah Kenneth, a Muslim follower of Gbowee's. Together they organized sit-ins lasting days, they forced cease-fire negotiations, and, when things slowed, barricaded the conference building until a settlement was hammered out. As the film's director, Gini Reticker, points out, the women even resorted to a time-honored ploy right out of "Lysistrata" – they refused any sexual relations with their men until the fighting stopped.
These women, clad all in white, engineered the exile of Taylor, who was subsequently put on trial for crimes against humanity. The result was the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first female head of state.
It's exhilarating to see these heroines – 2,500-strong – bearing placards saying "We Want Peace." The mystery, never quite explained in the film, is why Taylor's forces, or the warlords', didn't decimate the women – especially given the brutality shown them in the past. Perhaps it was the coalition of two normally opposing groups. Asks one woman: "Does a bullet know the difference between a Christian and a Muslim?"
In addition to the rousing footage of Gbowee and her followers, Reticker captures the scary pomp of Taylor's regime and the outlaw malevolence of the warlords. "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" documents a rarity these days – a national tragedy with a happy ending. If this were a fictional Hollywood movie, it would be criticized for being too upbeat. But sometimes truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's also a whole lot better. Grade: A- (Unrated.)