No other film in my 25-year moviemaking career has sparked as strong and varied a reaction as Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the documentary that brings to light the ordinary—but nonetheless remarkable—heroines of Liberia, who banded together against brutal warlords and a ruthless dictator, challenging the status quo of violence and inaugurating peace after years of civil war. In the past 18 months, the film has been part of events as disparate as a meeting of Bosnian war survivors, a celebrity-laden premiere in New York, the 2009 Profile in Courage awards and even “The Colbert Report.”
The idea for this film came from Abigail Disney, who met some Liberian women at a conference in Africa and could not believe the amazing and inspiring David and Goliath story she kept hearing: A true story of how a simple, interfaith, nonviolent protest movement—women in white T-shirts—had broken down a brutal war machine that had seemed permanently entrenched in Liberia. Her surprise and chagrin that this true story had been largely left out of the news made her determined to put the story on film. Having worked on documentaries about women and war, I became an enthusiastic partner, and Pray the Devil Back to Hell was born. My strong hunch that this story was special was the fuel that kept us going as we took extended trips to Africa to film interviews and spent hundreds of hours researching rare film footage of the war—and the even rarer footage of the women who worked so persistently to end it.
I suspected early on that this film would get what for my career would be an unprecedented reaction, and that it would attract a much broader audience than the socially conscious, peace-promoting women’s interest groups that were early supporters.
The first inkling of Pray the Devil Back to Hell’s impact came when security guards at our Tribeca premiere snuck into the film and pocketed all the postcards and promo material on display. We then went on the road to screen the film at international festivals and for audiences of women in conflict zones. The film struck a chord wherever it went, reverberating from Palestine all the way to Traverse City, Michigan. In Sudan, the Congo, Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Bolivia, Rwanda and Kenya the refrain was the same: “That is my story! Where can I get the film? How can we show it here to a larger audience?”
Even as the film toured the United States, dozens then hundreds of groups asked us to screen the film for them. Mosques, churches and synagogues wanted to show it to their members to demonstrate the power of interfaith dialogue. Nurses working in detox centers wanted their residents to see an individual’s power to overcome. Community organizers wanted to show the film to girls in gangs to help them strategize about ending cycles of violence. We were overwhelmed with requests from Sydney, Australia to Sitka, Alaska.
It became obvious that we needed to expand our distribution model. We had always planned on releasing the film theatrically while taking it to human rights festivals and to conflict zones abroad. Pray had successful runs at more than 40 film festivals, including Tribeca, Silverdocs and Santa Barbara. But at each it had a very limited number of screenings. Community groups supported the film’s limited theatrical run, but we weren’t satisfying the drumbeat of demand for screenings outside of conventional theaters.
We turned to Caitlin Boyle of Film Sprout to help us add a new tier to our distribution model. Like us, she believed that even people who don’t live in university towns and big cities should have access to thoughtful, rigorous and truly independent documentaries. With Caitlin’s help, we built a Global Peace Tour campaign for Pray the Devil Back to Hell, that was linked to the UN’s International Day of Peace on September 21. This tour involved hundreds of community screenings as well as larger events in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, London and other cities. The Global Peace Tour offers community-based organizations the opportunity to screen Pray the Devil Back to Hell to audiences they invite and in settings they choose. Participants have felt Pray must be shown in forums aside from darkened theaters; it should be shared in public, group-oriented places such as churches, schools, community centers, college libraries and so on.
The Global Peace Tour was our answer to handling the overwhelming number of requests for public community screenings, but it has had the very happy effect of bringing Pray the Devil Back to Hell to a much larger audience. As of this writing, we’ve received more than 700 requests from community organizations, and well over 200 screenings are scheduled in 33 states—far more than we were able to reach theatrically. Across five continents, 16 countries are participating and groups of many diverse religious faiths are all holding screenings, with the list expanding daily. These groups have all said that they are interested in the film’s instructive and inspiring message of perseverance, determination and faith.
These community screenings demonstrate the tremendous social and cultural value of documentary moviemaking. Many of these groups have told us that in less than two hours, the film has helped them communicate ideals and emotions to their members that they were unable to convey through years of writing and discussion. “The movie was very moving for the indigenous people, when seeing women prevailing, looking for peace,” wrote a woman from the Amazon who wrote to us after having seen Pray the Devil Back to Hell at the First International Forum of Indigenous Women in Lima, Peru. “We are the ones who are really at the front, trying to find peace. It has been a very important task. Indigenous women are fighters. This movie makes us relive history and makes us stand firm and sure to defend our rights as women.”
Feedback from fans such as this one have helped us shape our strategy for connecting the film with its audience. The screenings have allowed Pray to become more than just a film and story. It is a tool to encourage conversation and grow and strengthen communities, forging a path that other documentaries and films about social issues can follow.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell is now available on DVD. Visit http://www.praythedevilbacktohell.com for more information.