The Rabble Rousers
She was loud, literary, politically active, quick with a waggish comment. She accepted offers to join the boards of many organizations. But until making Pray the Devil Back to Hell, she says, she'd "never done anything on purpose." Even her introduction to Liberia was an accident: In the early days of the administration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, elected president in 2005 after nearly three years of corrupt transitional government following Taylor's exile, Disney was invited to visit the country with a group from Harvard's Women and Public Policy Program. And on that trip she first heard the stories about the women who'd ended a war. On the last night of her visit, over drinks with Geoffrey Rudd, the European Commission's chargé d'affaires in Liberia, she double-checked the accuracy of the rumors. "Here is a guy," she says, "who, if this is a fairy tale, he's going to be the guy to tell me. And before I could even get to the end of the sentence, he said, 'Those women were amazing. We wouldn't be sitting here in peace, with Ellen in the presidency, if it hadn't been for them. In fact, there's CNN footage of me trying to climb out the window of the negotiating room.'"
When it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival just a year and a half after that first meeting at the Hotel Bedford, Pray the Devil Back to Hell won the festival's award for best documentary feature. It is an upbeat story about an unlikely mix of characters who believed in themselves and kept on doing so through the worst of circumstances and against all odds, all the way to their final triumph. (The irony of this is not lost on Disney. "I made a Disney movie!" she says. "It was completely by accident, believe me. But it does make me laugh.")
At the climax of the film, nearly 200 women loop arms in the close quarters of the corridor outside the "peace hall," where Taylor's representatives and the rebel warlords are meeting but getting nowhere. The women are blocking the men from leaving the room, and the generals stuck inside send security forces to arrest Gbowee for obstructing justice. "And that term 'obstructing justice' was almost like when you take gas and pour it on an open flame," Gbowee says. "I said, 'Okay, I'm going to make it very, very easy for you to arrest me.' I took off my hair tie. They were looking at me, and I said, 'I'm going to strip naked.'"
Throughout West Africa, it's a powerful curse for a woman to strip naked in public—absolute bad luck, bad fortune. And to Gbowee, that's what the situation called for. That morning, she'd heard a report of a missile exploding in the American embassy compound in Monrovia: Two boys had just gone out to brush their teeth, and now all that was left of them was their slippers. "That day we had to do something dramatic," she says.
The moderator of the talks came into the hall to calm her. Gbowee was enraged, but she was also a brilliant tactician. "There were two things playing in our favor," she explains. "One, the peace talks were in Ghana, and the Ghanaians hold strongly to their traditional beliefs. And the men at the table mostly came from indigenous backgrounds and also held strongly to indigenous beliefs. They would have given us the world rather than see us stripping naked." When a frustrated warlord came out to try to push and kick the women away, Gbowee says the moderator told him, "Go back in there and sit down. If you were a real man, you wouldn't be killing your people. But because you are not a real man, that's why they will treat you like boys."
Two weeks later, the terms of the peace treaty were announced.