SUNDANCE REVIEW: 'Redemption of General Butt Naked' an Intriguing, Bizarre Doc About a Former African Warlord
Filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion's stranger-than-fiction story is competing in the U.S. documentary section.
PARK CITY -- U.S. Documentary Competition -- Where most documentaries impart information and answer questions, The Redemption of General Butt Naked is most rewarding when it poses questions instead. Filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion tell the stranger-than-fiction story of a one-time tribal priest in the African country of Liberia, who first transforms himself into a notorious warlord known as "General Butt Naked," butchering thousands by his own hand or those of his mostly child soldiers, then reinvented himself as a Christian evangelist calling himself Joshua Milton Blahyi.
The questions pile on top of one another: Do you believe him? Is justice served when the perpetrator of so many atrocities merely says he's sorry? Can anyone truly forgive such transgressions? On and on the questions flow.
Utterly fascinating with a charismatic central figure -- love him or loathe him -- who is made for the big screen, The Redemption of General Butt Nakedcould be a small hit in specialty venues for adventurous distributors domestically and certainly overseas.
First about that name: During Liberia's blood-drenched 14-year civil war, this man and his warriors -- and there is photographic evidence to back this up -- strode into street battles armed with little more than AK-47s and cutlasses, seemingly impervious to their enemy's bullets. Lacking clothes, many believed they wore the armor of invisibility. The Butt-Naked army was the most feared militia in all of Liberia.
The general preferred children to fight for him. They focused better and had no sense of their own futures, he admits. He explains -- and this is sheer evil genius -- that he screened for them Hollywood war and action movies, showing an actor being killed in one film only to re-appear in another. He tells his young soldiers that the people they kill go to live in another movie.
But that's all past, a "dream" as he puts it. Now he has found Jesus and returns from a 10-year exile to preach about redemption and forgiveness. You're allowed as much cynicism as you like over this war criminal that finds so much hope in the idea of forgiveness.
But he does seek out the families of those he killed and those victims who still live and does beg for their forgiveness. And he is the first warlord to testify before Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission where he confesses to upwards of 20,000 deaths by him and his army. Another ex-warrior, 2011 presidential candidate Senator Prince Johnson, is seen on camera refusing to appear and angrily rejecting his guilt.
When the TRC report recommends amnesty for Joshua, death threats begin so he flees, abandoning his wife and children, to live in a refugee camp in Ghana. He later returns, but you can understand why a follower now believes all his actions are for his own "self-benefit."
You might also notice his choice of words as a repentant. (English is the common language throughout this nation founded by former American slaves.) To one victim he declares: "You haveto forgive me." This is still the command of a general, not a preacher.
Strauss and Anastasion have not just caught lightning in a bottle in the five years they tracked this mercurial personality. They also get just the right archival footage, interviews, staggering confessions and highly emotional moments to draw a necessarily ambiguous portrait of this complex individual. They withhold any personal judgments to let audiences draw their own conclusions.
One man who knows Joshua estimates that in the balance between good and evil, Joshua is roughly 75 percent good and 25 percent bad. That may have to do for now.
This is an extremely unsetting film that holds you tightly in its grip for its almost too short running time.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Part2 Pictures in association with Mad Monitor
Directors-producers: Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion
Executive producers: Gregory Henry, David Shadrack Smith
Director of photography: Eric Strauss, Ryan Hill, Peter Hutchens
Music: Justin Helland
Editor: Jeremy Siefer
Sales: The Film Sales Co.
No rating, 84 minutes