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Movie Review: Pray The Devil Back To Hell

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A bunch of ladies looking to get a peace. Photo by Pewee Flomoku.

The Republic of Liberia, tucked warmly between Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast on the African-Atlantic seaboard, is supposed to be a success story. Loosely founded in 1822 by freed American slaves in search of hope, homogeny, and a life of freedom, Liberia immediately became a West African beacon of choice and political change. By 1847 they had established independence, relying heavily on U.S.-educated leaders and the deeply entrenched social norms of the great American South; they even spoke English.

Unfortunately, Liberia would fall victim to the same American failings that had caused such exodus to Africa only a decade before. After enjoying the role of 'beacon of prosperity' and opening it's doors to foreign corporate influence, the wealth quickly amassed at the top, forcing the poor working class to struggle in much the same way as their American ancestors, including slavery and child conscription into the military. By 1980 a military cup had taken place, and would set the stage for the Authoritarianism that would come to rule Liberia. By 1997 Charles Taylor came to power in a bloody insurgency that quickly spiraled the country into war and chaos.

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This is where Pray The Devil Back to Hell begins, just before renewed hope and just after a history lesson written in blood. But such background is necessary when dealing with the heavy-handed social commentary of director Gini Reticker. The film picks up where peace leaves off: a 2003 void where warring factions out-atrocity each other in a quest for the money and power a new, provisional government will bring. Times are desperate and the air is heavy with meaningless rhetoric. As children and grown men alike depart on front-line soldier convoys that return empty at dusk, the only people left are the women. And for peace, that is all Liberia will need.

Founded on growing disillusionment and abject fear, Pray The Devil Back to Hell acknowledges a group of Christian and Muslim women who take to the streets of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, to protest for the most basic human needs: peace and love. Clad in stark white t-shirts and numbering in the hundreds, these politically-motivated mothers, aunts, daughters, and wives stage a continuous sit-in along the route to the presidential palace, forcing their hand on current leader Charles Taylor. They are quickly noticed, but dismissed, by Taylor and his private security force. However, the women are ready and willing to ramp up their non-violent efforts, by striking the core of the male psyche: sex.

As they grown in rank, this impromptu womens peace movement gains steam and political clout. As political tensions mount around the peace talks in Ghana, these courageous women resort to a human barricade to spurn new developments towards peace. And if needed, they have the ultimate trump card up their sleeve - their own nudity.

With the international media focus on the war in Iraq, the women of Liberia have until now received little attention towards their harrowing journey back into the political freedoms first enjoyed by their founding fathers. This is probably what makes Pray The Devil Back to Hell so initially enjoyable; while being overshadowed at home and abroad, a dedicated swath of freedom-loving females took up their cause and enacted the change they saw failing around them. As a story, it is at times moving, funny, heartbreaking, and prosperous. Told without third-party narration, the memories relived (and their corresponding tone) by the women who were actually there are the catalyst that spurs the movie towards it's ultimate point of redemption. As a documentary, however, it is still a little shaky. Edited earlier this year (just days before the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival - where it would ultimately win the Best Documentary Feature award), there are technical aspects and overall flow that remain to be ironed out. Subtle things, like jerky subtitles and jumps in sound, can quickly pull one out of the film and firmly back into the theater. It is sincerely hoped that these small issues are rectified before it's release to a wider audience. Secondly, the balance between history, story-telling, and archival footage sometimes feels murky. An attempt is made to isolate and identify the major warlord players, but either not enough information exists on these men, or it is simply glossed over. Also, it is understood that the lack of global media attention means that there is a dearth of archival footage, but many of the harrowing stories of survival leading up to and through the sit-ins would be better served visually, instead of a Blair-Witch like shakiness that ultimately shows little more than corrugated steel pieces and torn sandals.

Thankfully, Pray The Devil Back to Hell is a story so compelling, it is able to soar above it's shortcomings. And with a little bit of post-production work, it is entirely possible that most of these failings will disappear altogether, leaving nothing but the finely polished documentary that Liberia's terrible truth deserves, but has not gotten internationally. Indeed, Pray The Devil Back to Hell is a worthwhile investment, if only for it's past lessons and current message that a group of organized women truly can shape their own future, despite outrageous attempts to deny them.

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Pray The Devil Back To Hell begins a limited run at the Laemmle Music Hall @ 9035 Wilshire Blvd. on November 14th.