There's no polite way to say this, but you wouldn't think a documentary about Liberia could be uplifting. Not until recently, anyway. That coastal West African nation, founded by freed American slaves halfway through the 19th century, practically bled to death by its own hand at the close of the 20th, while presided over by one of modern Africa's most horrible despots (and unfortunately that's really saying something).
Under Liberia's warlord-tyrant president Charles Taylor, government-sanctioned rape, torture, mutilation and murder were commonplace -- propagated mostly through ragtag, street-roaming swarms of drug-addled tweens with Kalashnikovs. When a rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, rose to oppose Taylor, it too swiftly became an agent of barbarity.
"Nobody can bring war against me. I'm war itself," Taylor once bragged. And he was right.
So a group of desperate, astonishingly brave Liberian women tried something else. Instead of bringing war, they brought peace. They demonstrated. They withheld sex from their husbands. They left politics and religious differences out of it. They took to the radio, asking, simply, "Are you sick and tired of war?"
Yes, under the circumstances, it sounds preposterous. But the basic idea is at least as old as Aristophanes' Lysistrata, which played it for bawdy satirical comedy: Men start wars and women stop them. Gini Reticker's documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, has the privilege of presenting the idea as more or less a matter of fact.
Reticker's straightforward, narrowly focused reconstruction mixes current interviews with various scraps of archival footage -- including the chilling snippet in which Taylor made that aforementioned boast, and just enough glimpses of the violence and its aftermath to set the proper stakes.
The arresting montage of vivid graffiti-inspired illustrations over her opening credits tips us off to Reticker's direct presentation and ultimately affirming tone: No, this won't be another gravely hectoring chore of a documentary about Africa's ongoing affliction with something like the opposite of civilization. Nor will it be a dazzler cinematically. Nor will it need to be.
Instead, social worker Leymah Gbowee talks plainly and modestly about how she started a women's movement (of Christians and Muslims alike), got the warmongers' attention, helped get Taylor deposed and eventually helped make it possible for Liberia to elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first female head of state, in 2005.
"The UN didn't know what to do," Gbowee recalls of the uneasy moment when a shattered Liberia finally got the world's official attention. "Fortunately for them, the women were there."
In hindsight, Gbowee's story -- and by no means is it hers alone -- seems so remarkable that it almost had to become a film. Perhaps Pray the Devil Back to Hell will not be the last.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell is now playing at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.redvicmoviehouse.com.