Pray the Devil Back to Hell, is a powerful documentary about the courageous women of Liberia who stood up and said no more to war and through their sheer determination and grit were able to transform a country. The film premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival where it was just awarded the prize for best documentary feature. In awarding the prize the jurors said: “In a relentless pursuit of peace, the women of Liberia show us how community, motherly love and perseverance can change the fate of a society. Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a reminder that we have the power to say “Enough!” to the atrocities of our world."
The film is produced by Abigail E. Disney and directed by Gini Reticker. Both Abby and Gini were able to answer some questions about the film and their extraordinary collaboration.
Women & Hollywood: You and Gini seem to have a real collaborative relationship beyond the typical producer/ director.
Gini Reticker: We hadn't seen each other for years and we ran into each just after Abby had been to Liberia. We were totally on the same page about what was important in the story. It was wonderful to have her and she was also respectful of me in the edit room. She would make suggestions that respected my experience. It's been an incredibily dynamic relationship.
W&H: Talk about where you got the title from.
GR: One of the main character in the film Leymah Gbowee says that Charles Taylor could pray the devil out of hell and it was such a great expression. What the women did by banding together is that they prayed the devil back to hell. I don't think that it was only Charles Taylor as the man, but it was the evil force they saw. The country had lost its moral compass and the women came forward and said hey, let's get this under control.
W&H: Abby, you financed the film yourself?
AD: Yes, it seemed easier rather than having to go to people to ask for money. It gave me nimbleness and an ability to react more quickly and to think independently without having to answer to anybody.
W&H: What was the budget?
AD: We spent around $800,000. It was not an easy shoot. There is no power in Liberia so you need generators. We had to build our own sets and I was not about to go without insurance. As the producer I felt very responsible for everyone and their safety. And Gini is well respected as is Kirsten Johnson, the Director of Photography, and these are people who should be paid appropriately.
W&H: Talk a bit about what you've learned from your first foray into the movie business.
AD: I didn't have a lot of the problems women have because I didn't need to go and ask for money. I didn't have to talk anyone in charge of the purse strings and convince them as to why this was important because I knew this was a tough sell. Even if there are women in charge they are still accountable to men. So they are very averse to taking risks especially if its seen as a "women's thing." It's difficult to get anybody in the mainstream media to understand this. That's why I felt I was uniquely positioned to get this done.
GR: For me working in documentaries has really been easy and its been manageable with having a family which has been really nice because I had some control over my career. I've always been drawn to women's issues. Before I made documentaries I worked in women's health care and that is what drew me to working on my first film. I think that working in documentaries has been the ideal profession for me.
W&H: You've been involved in women's issues for a long time but never felt compelled to tell a story before.
AD: I've felt compelled to tell a story before just not compelled enough to do it.
W&H: Why was this different?
AD: Everything lined up on this one. Part of it is how old my kids are and how much time I had. This really was a story that was going to be erased from the historical records that was really worth holding onto.
W&H: Talk more about how women's accomplishments get erased from history.
AD: Yesterday I was talking to a high school class after a screening and asked them if they heard of Sacagawea and of course they had. They had, because there were women who worked and resurfaced the memory of her. She was not in the historical records as I was taught it when I was in high school. This is the persistent manner of how we have defined authority as not to include women. If they don't look authoritative they don't get captured in the media which then gets converted into the historical record. We clearly knew what was going on in Liberia. The news media didn't look at what the women were doing here as authoritative, and they simply did not point their cameras in that direction. We had no problems finding the footage of the killings, the shootings and the maimings, but when the women were working for peace the cameras were not pointed in that direction. That tells us a great deal about what the news media thinks is worth telling and how much of what genuinely happens we don't hear.
W&H: You mentioned before that we tend to see women in Africa as victims not through their accomplishments and that it was important for you to tell this positive story.
GR: Most of the media you see on Africa portrays Africa and Africans as victims and not agents of their own lives. I feel that the people that I met there are just like you and me. As a documentary filmmaker I am always drawn to what I have in common with someone rather than that which makes us different. I feel the common bond of humanity is fascinating and so I was hell bent on making sure the women were able to tell their own story and they were portrayed in the way I saw them. I also felt that by doing that it is much easier to be inspired by them.
W&H: Our country is not aware of the global women's movement and you have an opportunity to bring some international feminism tothis country.
AD: I don't think it will be hard. When I tell people about the 12 countries that the film has shown in about how the women in Kurdistan and Georgia wept and then wrote a peace agenda. I think this will be very appealing to women if we get it to them through the right medium, through the right messenger and in the right form.
W&H: Media, messenger, form? Explain.
AD: Well, obviously, all of those things come together in Oprah Winfrey. We are going to work on finding the right messengers on TV, radio and the internet to bring this message to women.
W&H: How are you going to get the film out there? Do you have a distributor?
AD: I'm not going to a distributor with my hat in my hand begging them to distribute the film. If we don't get a good deal we will distribute it ourselves.
W&H: Hollywood doesn't seem to be interested in women's stories. What are your feelings about that?
GR: The thing about Hollywood not liking women's stories, I think it's a case of blindness to a real market, to a real hunger. That's the response we are getting from this film. There is a hunger for stories that are more hopeful that show a different side of things. The distribution of this film will be fascinating. We will try to have a theatrical release but we are getting requests from people who want to fill movie theaters around the country. We're getting more requests to show the film than we can deal with at this time. We are trying to harness all that and also look at alternative distribution models but I think we will probably do a hybrid and do everything. I would have to say hats off to Abby because she has enormous aspirations and energy and she is really committed to this film and to the ideas behind it.
W&H: And you will create a curriculum and other educational devices?
AD: the opportunities through educational institutions, religious institutions, through girls clubs, youth organizations, women's organizations are vast and there is a curriculum for each one of these groups.
W&H: A lot of times people say movies are just movies that they don't have the power to make change and to effect people.
AD: Movies are just movies if that's how you go about making them. of all the media we have this is the closest in tone and feel to the dream which comes from the deepest part of ourselves. we do such a disservice to ourselves to not use this medium with the respect it deserves because it has innately such enormous power to address our deepest needs and our deepest values and deepest longings. That's why my uncle (Walt) was very good at what he did. He understood that it had enormous power to go right into the center of who a person was and that's why i wanted to make this film. I couldn't write this as a book, I couldn't go around the world and tell people the story, you needed to have everything come together in music and visuals and sound in the way it does in this film and I think Gini has done an effective job in making sure that whole thing coheres.
W&H: What would you uncle say about this film?
AD: I'm not sure. I know he was a man of his time in many ways, politically he was very conservative and he was afraid of communists but I also know he had a good center, a good heart and I don't think this film is a politics film it has a real appeal to people without politics. sometimes you need to strip away politics and restore a dialogue without politics. and in that way, I think he'd love it.
W&H: What do you want people who see this film to get out of it?
GR: The response to far has been tremendous that whatever I thought that i wanted people to get out of it, they're getting much more out of it. I feel that people are being inspired in all sorts of different ways that I could never have imagined. There are people who see this as instrumental to doing peace work. I woke up yesterday morning to an email from women in Tiblsi, Georgia saying that they had seen the film and shown it to other women, their region is having heightened militarism with ethnic overtones and they decided to take up the mantle of the women of Liberia and are starting their own peace movement. What could be better than that. Women in Sudan say its going to change their lives. On that level its beyond my wildest hopes.
W&H: What are you doing next?
GR: Abby and I are continuing to work together and are co-producing a 4 hour series on women in conflict for Wide Angle on PBS.
Check out the Pray the Devil Back to Hell Trailer