- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” doesn’t have any of the accouterments seemingly essential to the modern documentary. There are no hammy narration, jokey interludes or music played to make a point.

It doesn’t need them. “Pray the Devil” is a taut piece of work that never wavers from its focus. It helps that its subject is so fascinating that it doesn’t really need ornamentation.

Tired of living in constant fear, a group of exceedingly strong women came together to help end Liberia’s second civil war. How these brave women accomplished their feat without getting killed - by either the dictator or the warlords - is a mysterious question this film doesn’t quite answer, but hearing the story of how it was done proves to be interesting enough.

“Liberia had been at war so long that my children had been hungry and afraid their entire lives,” one woman recalls. The West African nation, founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, endured one civil war beginning in 1989 and another starting in 1999, after Charles Taylor became president in 1997 and quickly established himself as dictator. A quarter of a million people were killed and a million were forced out of their homes in the war that pitted the Christian tyrant against mostly Muslim warlords.

Both sides might have claimed to have God on their side - “Taylor could pray the devil out of hell,” one woman notes - but they were equally evil. Mr. Taylor was a brutal authoritarian who decimated his opposition in the capital of Monrovia; the warlords gave boys guns and drugs, and they terrorized the countryside.

While Mr. Taylor’s policies starved people, the warlords’ followers raped girls and women and killed boys and men, all in front of their families. Amazingly, the horror brought women from both religions together: “Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?” one asks.

Leymah Gbowee led the Christian Women’s Initiative, and Asatu Bah Kenneth led the Liberian Muslim Women’s Organization. Clad in white and organizing protests and sit-ins that would go on for days, the two groups worked together to put pressure on both sides. The women even barricaded the building in which peace talks were taking place in Ghana, not allowing the men to leave until they brokered a deal.

The result? Mr. Taylor is awaiting trial in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, and Liberia has Africa’s first elected female head of state.

The film’s focus is its strength but also its weakness, in that we really only hear from a half-dozen women, including the two leaders. They tell us stories about the women they encountered, but it’s not the same as hearing those stories from the women themselves. Archival footage does a good job of fleshing out the historical context, though.

There’s still more to be said about the brutality that took place in just the past five years in Liberia. “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is an engrossing account, however, of how it finally ended.

★★★

TITLE: “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”

RATING: Not rated (Mature themes)

CREDITS: Directed by Gini Reticker. Original music by Blake Leyh.

RUNNING TIME: 72 minutes

WEB SITE: praythedevilbacktohell.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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