Mills became the launching pad for focused conversations about feminist theory, militarism, peace, security, politics, democratization, and international women’s movements for the seven-day Transnational Feminist Studies Project at Mills College on Feb. 28.
The women who conducted Oakland classroom visits and granted interviews to local radio and television stations included international scholars, activists, and filmmakers from Africa, Asia, and the United States. The major goal of the conference was to stimulate public interest and address the challenges posed by the dominance of militarism.
On Mar. 5, the final evening of the conference, the film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, was screened in the newly renovated Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Concert Hall. President Janet Holmgren introduced the occasion by welcoming the audience to celebrate the public role of women in the arts.
“This film speaks to the empowerment of women politically and socially,” she said as she looked into the nearly full audience of students, alumna, family, friends, and community members. Holmgren described the film as one that stands in an edgy place and commended its role in investing in change and collaboration across organizations.
The film, which won Best Documentary at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, tells the story of thousands of ordinary Liberian women who joined together and used prayer and non-violent protest to aid in ending 14 years of civil unrest in Liberia.
The crowd waited patiently while Ann Taylor, a representative from Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office, read a statement from Lee. Then, Kavita N. Ramdas, president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, shared her thoughts about the space and the importance of viewing the film at this time. She said this film would allow us to reclaim words like peace and non-violence.
“Namaste,” said Ramdas, using a common greeting from Indian culture that is often translated as ‘the light in me honors the light in you.’ “I am tempted to burst into song,” she said.
At the end of her speech, after reminding everyone that March is Women’s History month, she sang a few lines from Bread and Roses, a song attributed to the 1912 strike of industrial workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Then the lights dimmed.
The room fell silent, and for 72 minutes it remained that way, with the exception of occasional outbursts of applause, laughter and a collective sigh when the women of Liberia forced the warring parties in their country to come to agreements about ending the violence.
“The basic framing of the film was ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” said Sharon Robinson, a program officer at United Way of the Bay Area. She said she came to support the film because her friend, Bobbie Jeffery, told her about the screening. The two of them watched and had similar reactions.
“The women in the film reminded me of Rosa Parks,” Jeffery said. “They were tired and it only took one of them to be the catalyst for change. That was powerful.”
“The Liberian women were thinking about their kids,” said Jeffery in response to the featured footage of boys as young as seven-years-old with guns, rifles and other weapons as they terrorized men, women and children in a country then led by Charles Taylor.
As the film documented the process that the Liberian women went through to be heard, tissues passed from one stranger to the next as tears of joy and of sorrow fell from many of the eyes in attendance. When one woman on the screen, Vaiba Flomo, retold the story of a woman being forced to sing, clap, and dance as she watched her husband suffer and her daughter raped, audience members gasped.
“It’s really crucial to have [a film like this] because it broadens our view of women all over the world,” said Mills senior Becky Nelson, who said the film left her somewhat speechless.
After a four-minute applause at the end, the lights turned on and many people continued to wipe their eyes. The mood in the concert hall was best summed up by Rose Mensah Kutin, West African regional director of ABANTU for Development, when she said, “women have stood up to be counted.”
Kutin joined film producer Abigail Disney and Yasmin Jusu-Sheriff, human rights commissioner from Freetown, Sierra Leone, on stage for the panel discussion following the screening, which was led by Mills professor, Amina Mama. The discussion helped audience members get a sense of how the film evolved from an almost forgotten memory to an internationally recognized part of women’s history. The panel informed the audience on what is happening in Liberia now that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, is in office.
“This was a distinct opportunity to learn about issues in Africa from the female aspect,” said sophomore Alison Cronn. At the end of the panel discussion, many members of the audience trekked over to the Mills Art Museum for a public reception and further conversation with the filmmakers, scholars, and activists representing the African region.
Nelson said, “I’m glad to be a part of building solidarity and alliance with women who have similar causes from other parts of the world.”
Want to see it?
A two-minute preview of the film can be viewed at http://www.praythedevilbacktohell.com