About two decades ago, filmmakers Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney began searching for footage for a film on women in Liberia’s civil war.
Peace activist Leymah Gbowee had led a two-year sit-in in a field, they heard. She later barricaded warlords into their hotel conference center, demanding a peace deal. The women’s story had never been fully told.
But immediately, the filmmakers faced a significant challenge. All the footage from the war showed the same type of images: preteen boys with assault rifles and dreadlocks, bandanas around their young foreheads, sleeveless T-shirts stained with blood. The violence of the Liberian war had been extensively reported on. But no journalist had focused exclusively on the women’s peace groups.
“They were invisible,” Disney says. “Finding any footage of women doing anything more than suffering—it just didn’t exist. And journalists said, ‘Oh, we saw the women on the field, but they weren’t interesting so we didn’t film it.’” Like a puzzle pieced together from scraps on the cutting room floor, they used every shot in the archives with a woman in it, and filmed their own, and in 2008 premiered Pray the Devil Back to Hell at the Tribeca Film Festival.
It would eventually be viewed by 13 million people, on all seven continents, and be shortlisted for an Academy Award. Many say it led to activist Gbowee’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
And for Reticker and Disney, the huge public reaction raised deeper questions. Why did so few war documentaries put women at the heart of the story—not as victims, but as active agents key to ending the conflict? Disney, who had studied literature, recognized that this tradition of ignoring women dates back to one of the earliest known examples of Western literature, The Iliad. “Cassandra is there, before the war starts out, saying, ‘This is a terrible idea,’” Disney says. “And people are saying, ‘Oh you’re crazy. Don’t pay attention to her.’ How many women get dismissed and dismissed when talking about something that is in front of their face and factually accurate?”
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