I don’t think CDTR had foreseen the KONY 2012 spectacle when they planned their screening of “The Redemption of General Butt Naked.” But they certainly did not refrain from using Kony’s name on their promotional materials when the film did not even mention a word about warlords from countries other than Liberia–probably because they know very well that “Redemption” is the perfect contrast to the one-sided, unrealistically simplistic propaganda documentaries made by Jason Russell, who regrettably broke down recently on the streets of San Diego.

Joshua Blahyi, or the infamous “General Butt Naked”, was a man of great wickedness during the war. He was brutal but energetic, fanatic but charismatic. He had committed war crimes of practically all kinds, and he was a living legend–of evil. He fought, literally, butt naked and yet was able to display almost supernatural power in avoiding harm. Things began to change after Bishop John Kun Kun visited him one day and asked him to recite a prayer. Not long after that strange incident, Blahyi completely pulled out of the war in 1996. He converted to Christianity and began preaching and, above all, went around seeking the relatives of his past victims to apologize and beg for forgiveness.

Forgiveness, the center of the film’s exploration, is presented with much ambiguity. According to the movie’s editor Jeremy Siefer who were present at the screening, even though the subjects both on and off the film have generally forgiven Blahyi “pretty quickly,” signs of hesitation and questioning of Blahyi’s true motive do exist. Even during the duration of the making of the film, Blahyi had done many things that would call his sincerity into question. First, even though Blahyi has said that he does not care about whether he would be granted immunity or put into jail for what he did, Blahyi’s surprising confession of his crimes, first among the numerous warlords who also fought in the war, came only after an implicit agreement of immunity was made. Second, after he was put onto the list of war criminals not recommended for prosecution, he fled Liberia because he was receiving death threats that, according to Siefer, are mostly from not his victims, but other warlords who were angry at the fact that Blahyi actually confessed his crimes. The typical response of these other warlords, exemplified by Prince Johnson’s short interview in the film, is a matter of shameless denial. Blahyi ran away to Ghana and pretty much abandoned his family and ex-fighters, whom he was just beginning to help (to improve living conditions and stop drug-use) through his charismatic preaching. His sudden absence practically reversed all the progress that has happened to his ex-fighters, and many of them went back to drugs and others gave up on Blahyi.

Both the crimes he has undoubtedly committed during the war and the seeming irresponsible acts he did after the war are valid considerations for anyone to withhold his or her forgiveness. At the same time, however, Blahyi is one of the very few people who explicitly took responsibility for his “sins” and went out of his way to apologize and seek forgiveness. I think it’s hard to make the argument that everything Blahyi did after conversion is motivated by self-interest, but it is a valid point especially considering how he left his family and friends behind for his own life after promising that he would stay with them. Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss, the directors of the film, call into question the power and extent of forgiveness and quite purposefully created the atmosphere to evoke moral confusion. No documentary-maker ever comes back with a “perfect” film, but I believe they have done an excellent job in representing the complexity of the situation. Like Siefer said, the Liberian Civil War and post-war reconciliation is an incredibly fuzzy issue and it is the filmmakers’ job to “redraw the lines” of the complexity of real life.

For the audience, to forgive or to not forgive is perhaps an easier decision because we were not victimized by Blahyi or the war personally. As an outsider, I thought about the implications of not forgiving Blahyi for his terrible crimes during the war. If we cannot forgive someone who has taken responsibility for what he did, then who exactly can we ever forgive? A world in which people do not forgive is an incredibly scary world because it is a world of “no-second-chance.” And it would be a world that do not believe in the human potential to change for the better and its people incapable of letting go of their anger and hatred.

Above all, we have seen how Blahyi was so monstrous during the war and yet was able to turn into an incredible pastor who has very solid power to change others’ lives for the better. Is it really entirely his fault or is it the war’s fault as well? If the historical situation had not led to the Liberian Civil War, Blahyi perhaps would have used his energy for a good cause from very early on–same with his ex-fighters. This point is also relevant to the ever-ongoing debate on the death penalty and, more recently, the Afghan civilian killing by the U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Bales. War turns good people into monsters and innocent people into corpses. Of course, all of these musings assume that there is no proper system of justice to prosecute the war criminals. When Liberia has such justice system, I believe it is only right to prosecute the leaders who have committed crimes, including Blahyi, while also giving more severe sentences to the ones who deny their crimes. But I think justice is a different matter from forgiveness. Justice is fair and should be objective, whereas forgiveness is a subjective human capacity. And I think without forgiveness, it’s hard for the living to move on. Ultimately, the dead is dead, and the living must live.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked (2011)

Directed by Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion

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