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The Redemption of General Butt Naked

Dirs: Eric Strauss & Daniele Anastasion. US. 2011. 84mins

The only thing more outrageous than this documentary’s title is its smiling protagonist, a confessed mass murderer who roams battle-scarred Liberia as an evangelist, seeking forgiveness and followers.

Blahyi is a ham, a born performer, with a face that’s made for a carnival speech and for close-ups.

This staggeringly cinematic doc should have a secure berth on the festival circuit, thanks to one of the best titles since John Waters’s Pecker and bravura visual flourishes that set it apart from mournful reflections about truth and reconciliation after brutal wars. 

Television is where most audiences are likely to see General Butt Naked, provided programmers aren’t put off by vivid footage of atrocities.

We meet the voluble indefatigable Joshua Milton Blahyi after 14 years of fighting have ravaged Liberia (1989-2003).  His nom de guerre came from his gang’s practice of marching into battle nude, believing that bullets couldn’t harm them.

Apocalyptic videos, selected sparingly, show how brutal (and how young) these grotesque fanatics were.  Their death toll is estimated in the hundreds of thousands and Blahyi himself confesses to 20,000 killings.

The documentary’s cinematographers follow Blahyi  - happy to oblige - as he lurches from laughter to tears with his former victims, mobile phone at the ready. Many revisit the frightening details of their families’ killings. Some accept his apologies. Others watch warily, unconvinced that the former murderer has changed anything but his rhetoric as he mugs for the camera.

Blahyi is a ham, a born performer, with a face that’s made for a carnival speech and for close-ups. The filmmakers capture that actor’s mask, yet the landscape in which Blahyi travels is a grim reality check. The ruined country is as damaged as its people.

You can see why the war-wounded, left with nothing, might flock to his raptures about redemption. Blahyi’s theatrical gospel strains credibility, yet he’s more forthcoming about his crimes than other warlords from those bloody years, none of whom has been tried in Liberia.

The former General Butt Naked may not be redeemed, but he’s not alone. Accountability remains a casualty of Liberia’s long civil war.  We’ve seen war’s devastation in an ongoing flow of documentaries about Sudan and Rwanda. Blahyi’s cocktail of ruthlessness, charm and buffoonery has an antecedent in Barbet Schroeder’s Idi Amin Dada (1974).

And born-again charisma has its limits in Liberia. Toward the end of General Butt Naked, the born-again preacher is on the run from other ex-warlords. Ham or not, there’s enough truth in what he’s preaching for them to want him dead. 

Production company: part2pictures

International sales: The Film Sales Company, www.filmsalescorp.com

Producers: Daniele Anastasion, Eric Strauss

Executive Producers: Gregory Henry, David Shadrack Smith

Co-Producers: Ryan Hill, Ryan Lobo

Cinematography: Eric Strauss, Peter Hutchens, Ryan Hill

Editor: Jeremy Siefer

Music: Justin Melland

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