LOS ANGELES -- For 13 years, Leymah Gbowee watched as her native Liberia devolved into an earthly hell. Violence, rape, and murder had become part of daily life as violent warlords battled the country's equally depraved president over control of a nation once founded in peace by freed American slaves.
Then one night, Gbowee had a dream that she should gather a group of women together to pray for peace. And from that dream the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a movement of ordinary Christian and Muslim women, rose up to help put an end to Liberia's civil war.
The new documentary feature, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," chronicles how this interfaith group of women became the conscience of their nation, convincing President Charles Taylor and the warlords alike to attend peace talks in Ghana in 2003 and shaming them into action when those talks stalled.
Despite their significant role in the peace process, however, the story of the women peace warriors remained virtually untold internationally until producer Abigail E. Disney and director Gini Reticker decided to reconstruct their journey through archival footage, interviews, and present-day video of the country.
The film premiered here Friday (Nov. 14) and is currently making the rounds of local film festivals.
In an early scene of the film, Gbowee stands before her congregation at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia and implores her fellow Christian women to band together to protest the war. Inspired, a Muslim woman in the crowd pledges to mobilize her community, exclaiming "We all serve one God!" As the women in the room cheer, the men in the front rows stand with their arms crossed, obviously displeased.
Gbowee and Disney, who is active in the American feminist movement, believe the scene reveals the vital role women can and must play in democratizing religious institutions.
"The imams, the bishops, the pastors, and the priests, all of these people kind of interpret the Scripture the way they want to, to use this group of people to put forth their own agendas," says Gbowee, a trauma counselor who has worked with former child soldiers.
"As peace activists, as community mobilizers, one of the things that we need to do is to really find messages that would unite people of different faiths."
One such message that sparked unity in their movement, she says, was the rallying cry, "Does a bullet know a Christian from a Muslim?" When some of the more conservative Christian women asked why they needed help from Muslim women -- they said their God was big enough to take care of it all -- it was the common experience of violence that allowed them to see past religious differences.
That ability to get beyond difference in search of a common goal is a lesson Disney believes American feminists can learn from the African women's movement.
"African women have the capacity to organize and be collective in spite of the fault lines, in spite of the Muslim/Christian fault line that divides everyone else up, in spite of the abortion fault line and the homosexuality fault line," she says. "The fact that they're able to find the roots of their collectivism and hold on to that, we need to learn from."
(More information about "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," including screening times and locations, is available at www.praythedevilbacktohell.com)