Last Night's Television - True Stories: Pray the Devil Back to Hell, more4; How Not to Live Your Life, BBC3
The African queens
Wednesday 23 September 2009
By their euphemisms shall ye know them. First, Charles Taylor, one-time president of Liberia and a man whose articulate, suave manner concealed an absolutely ruthless pursuit of wealth and power. Charles Taylor's contribution to Liberian civil society was the Anti-Terrorist Unit, a military force that might more accurately have been called the Terrorist Anti-Civilian Unit, so indiscriminate was its atrocities. The warlords opposed to Taylor, conscious of the need to present a respectable front to the world, had opted for the acronym LURD, which stood for Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a mission they pursued by drugging teenagers and sending them on killing rampages or – in the most terrible story told in True Stories' film
Pray the Devil Back to Hell – forcing a woman to sing and dance while her teenage daughter was raped on one side and her husband decapitated on the other. The combat between these decorously named forces resulted in a country where young boys waved human bones in the streets and the only real authority was an AK-47.
At which point, fortunately, another organisation came into being, the Christian Women's Peace Initiative, a title in which, for once, every word really did mean what it said. Brought to the point at which their anger trumped their fear, church women in Liberia decided to protest against conditions in their country. They then joined forces with women from Muslim mosques (unheard of previously) and demonstrated every day in a fish market on the route of Taylor's daily presidential convoy. When that didn't seem to be working, they followed the example of the Lysistrata and went on a sex strike, forcing their husbands to down tools until some real progress towards peace was under way. Eventually, gritting his sharklike teeth, Taylor agreed to see them and to attend peace negotiations. This wasn't a fairytale, of course. It got worse before it got better, Taylor fleeing arrest on war-crime charges and the war intensifying as the rebels closed in on the capital, Monrovia. But the women didn't give up, blockading the Ghanaian hotel where the warlords were happily spinning out the talks as they bickered for the most lucrative jobs in government and ran up the bills in their minibars. Eventually, the women took the delegates hostage, and shamed them – by sheer force of grief and anger – into concluding terms. The threat of a dazzlingly steely young woman called Leymah Gbowee to strip naked in front of them seems to have contributed to their change of heart.
One imagines it might have been a tiny bit more complicated than it was presented here, in a film that saw in an African tragedy the proof of Western gender politics. International impatience may have had as much to do with the final settlement as vocal protests outside the conference hall. But that the woman crystallised a previously absent sense of shame and inadequacy in the men they berated seemed undoubted. And Gini Reticker's film made it very clear that, even if they hadn't personally ended the war, they had since done enormous amounts to preserve the peace, mobilising voters for the eventual elections and voting into office Africa's very first female elected head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Just how you establish the long-term success of a country where so many teenage boys grew up raping and murdering and so many teenage girls had to suffer it isn't easy to say, but if they manage it it will be the women who deserve the credit.
Men don't emerge very well from How Not to Live Your Life either, though the specimens on show in BBC3's sitcom are too timid and childish to represent a threat to anybody but themselves. I have a faint memory that I gave a charitable review to Dan Clark's series on an earlier occasion, for which I can offer my apologies, because whatever virtues I detected in it then have entirely evaporated. The gimmick is an occasional break for an animated Letterman list gag – "Five Things You Shouldn't Do in the Theatre", for example – with the narrative action pausing as Clark acts out the alternatives. There are moments when the lips twitch fitfully during these sequences, but they're restored to default mode (frozen into a kind of appalled wince) by the startling charmlessness of the central character in all the other bits. Oddly, my technology continues to try and tell me things. The DVD player stalled at one point and flashed up a message: "There was an error reading from disc. It might be scratched or dirty". Dirty, I think, given that our hero had just extricated himself from an awkward relationship by pretending to be a gerontophile: "You don't need someone to wipe your bum after you've been to the toilet," he explained apologetically, "...and that's the kind of thing that gets me going." "Are you sure you want to quit?" the DVD software asked me as I finished watching and closed it down. There are days when it crosses my mind, I thought.
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