Forgiving a mass murderer

1 Posted by - May 3, 2011 - Blog, Reviews, Screen

The Redemption of Butt Naked (Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion) is a complicated, difficult film. It is not only difficult to watch, in terms of the footage of atrocities committed during Liberia’s sixteen-year civil war, but scenes of victims confronting their oppressor are so thickly layered feelings of anger co-mingle with feelings of anxiety, deep sadness and confusion.

This superbly constructed documentary by NYC micro-production company Part 2 Pictures takes the controversial perspective of mass murderer, marauder and rapist General Butt Naked, a difficult and complicated angle in itself – but manages to succeed without, I would argue, the moral pitfalls that such an orientation could indeed produce.

TROGBN is a character piece about Butt Naked, but it is also a film about redemption, forgiveness and the complex socio-political negotiations that crystallize (and fragment) at the site of the victim-perpetrator interaction. General Butt Naked was Liberia’s most feared civil war “general” – a man who ran through the streets naked while hacking and shooting his victims with horrific efficiency and brutality. With his squad of “naked warriors” the General admits that at least 20,000 civilian lives were lost because of their terrorizing actions. Near the end of the civil war (1989-2003) the general laid down his arms and disappeared into a ten year exile in neighbouring countries. The documentary follows the former war criminal as he returns to Liberia under the changed name and persona of the pastor Joshua Milton Blahyi .

Naked/Blahyi performs sermons, regroups with his former soldiers to pull them off the streets and into the church, and seeks out living victims to apologize and ply them for forgiveness. Following him throughout the film one realizes the insatiable charisma of this self-serving character almost instantly. As we learn of his earlier crimes one also has the unrelenting desire to see this evil person locked up behind bars for the rest of his life. There is an incredulous sense that accompanies the early part of the film as the audience attempts to grapple with the fact that this man is walking free, knowing what he has done to so many innocent victims.

This anger and frustration soon morphs into a different kind of discomfort, as one grapples with the fact that the filmmakers have chosen to focus on the perpetrator, not the victims in one of history’s most gruesome chapters of human pain and suffering. Indeed, it is likely that critics have focused on this aspect of the film and I at first harboured criticism that focused on the disempowerment of victims and the empowerment of the oppressor.

But TROGBN is too complex to dismiss it on these grounds. The film neither empathizes with the butcher general, nor makes invisible his many victims. Instead the documentary uses Butt Naked as a vessel or even a lens, from and through which we can access the complicated social, political and cultural skeins of forgiveness and reconciliation. The general’s redemption is only a skeleton that the filmmakers build the real story on top of – that of forgiveness.

It is difficult to understand why a mother whose daughter lost an eye from Butt Naked’s pistol and whose husband was killed from a bullet from that same gun would forgive such a man, even sixteen years later. She tells us “It is difficult to forgive, but I will never forget.” There are several elements at play in these arresting scenes of confrontation and negotiation as the general seeks out his survivors. One is the palpable desperation of a people ravaged by two decades of war, still scarred and with no infrastructure to facilitate the healing process. For them, the chance to have any kind of closure, must be a significant step toward healing. The other aspect is the role religion plays.

As a man of the cloth, Naked’s victims cannot refuse him and some definitely seem pressured by his religious status. It is fascinating and disturbing to see the role religion has in terms of sweeping in to fill a vacuum in a society in so much need of institutional support, infrastructure, and basic human rights and needs. Liberia remains an intensely scarred and poor country and Naked, along with Christianity, offer hope and inspiration on the way forward.

The film is exceptionally photographed with equally impressive editing and sound. It is a skilfully rendered work by a team well-aware of the murky moral waters they have waded into. It does not glorify Naked, but rather allows him the space to “hang himself” as it were. Yet, despite the disgust with his past and the distaste with his contemporary role as evangelist, the audience is left with the difficult question of whether Liberians would be better served by his incarceration, or by forgiving him and allowing him amnesty as the 2008 Truth and Reconciliation Commission indeed did.

This film is a layered, complicated work that will stick with audiences for a long time. The universal issues of justice and forgiveness are not made more simple by this work, but are revealed in their endless complexities and nuances.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked is currently screening at Hot Docs.

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