The Redemption of General Butt Naked Review

Redemption of General Butt Naked Review

Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion have made one of the most emotionally arresting, morally challenging, and thought provoking documentaries that I have seen in my recent memory with ‘The Redemption of General Butt Naked”. That said I’m not sure it was a movie worth making, or a story that deserves telling though to be totally honest. Furthermore I’m equally uncertain about whether or not I should even be reviewing it and thus giving it even more free publicity. That being said, the movie is out there regardless, and my influence is hardly widespread enough to make much of a difference one way or another, so discuss this documentary I shall, because as said, it was very thought provoking and provided me with very powerful images and stories that will be, for better or worse, seared into my consciousness for a long time to come. I first saw this film a few nights ago on the documentary channel I get as part of my satellite package. And yes, it was the bizarre title that hooked me, just as it was probably the title that hooked you into reading this review.

The story of this movie is set in the little talked about (in the Americas anyway) country of Liberia, which is located right next to the ‘Blood Diamond’ hot bed of Sierra Leona, itself a much sexier but equally appalling (or should I say appealing?) topic for many contemporary documentaries. Now, as a bit of back story to provide context to the civil war torn setting this documentary takes place in, I will go into the history of Liberia a bit. Please note this is not in any way intended to be the complete account of or even an acceptable summary of the entire history of the country as that is well beyond both the capabilities and purpose of this review. That being established, I found it interesting to learn that Liberia is a nation with a lot of historical ties to the early United States.

Its capital Monrovia is named after our former president James Monroe, and it was the early American doctrine of sending a certain amount of freed former slaves who fought in our Revolution against Great Britain back to Africa in that designated area of land that set in place much of the social turmoil that would lead to the events described and displayed in this film. Those aforementioned slaves who were granted their freedom, upon landing in Liberia, basically in a case of repeating the only system they knew recreated an exact replication of the plantation based slavery system that was prevalent in the American South at the time. Thus goes the law of unintended consequences.

On the flip side though with the help and influence of the leading politicians in Washington at the time they also adopted a constitution, well ahead of its time for the region (even today), which was based upon the exemplary American example. During the 19th century this American experiment which basically created a quasi-colony in Africa eventually saw the independent republic of Liberia be created, which was shortly thereafter recognized by then sitting President Abraham Lincoln as a free and sovereign nation. In this way, Liberia has always had a tenuous connection with the west, importing both the good and bad of our culture.

Even today many of the youth of Liberia can be seen sporting t-shirts that feature prominent American companies and artists on them and the influence of American culture and television is, as it is in many places, strongly felt. This aforementioned functioning republic based on the American version lasted well into the late 20th century, until the first non American descended Liberians took control of the country in a brutal cue in the early 1980s and established a harsh dictatorship there. And again, I must admit that that is perhaps an over-simplification because it’s very doubtful that the existing government at the time was a bed of roses in its own right. That notwithstanding this turn of events lead to a long, brutal, and tribally complex civil war (or more to the point, wars) that would claim over a quarter of a million Liberian lives and which lasted from 1989 up until 2003.

Into this war torn mess stepped the man who would come to be known as General Butt Naked, whose given name we learn, is Joshua Milton Blahyi. During the war Blahyi lead a group of soldiers, mostly young children that he himself kidnapped and forced to fight for him in this brutal conflict. His battalion’s peculiar claim to fame, as his nickname suggests (all commanders in the Liberian war had similar outlandish nick names such as General Bin Laden, and General Mosquito that they went by to avoid prosecution after the war and to instill fear in the primitive minds of their opposition) was that they all carried out their attacks in the nude, often wearing only combat boots/tennis shoes, and whatever weapon they happened to be carrying. Since they live in a region where Voodoo and other forms of primitive spiritualism are very prominent it was easy for Blahyi to use this to his advantage for both recruiting and terrifying the locals. Like the Native Americans who mistakenly thought themselves bullet proof after their war dances and assorted ancient customs, so Blahyi’s brigade also fashioned themselves immortal and invincible in combat due to the fact that they were fighting completely naked, which Blahyi says enabled him to be more closely connected to his inner warrior spirit. Ignoring for a minute the actual logic of this train of thought, the reality was that due to the brutality of their attacks and also the striking image of him and his fighters that the name of General Butt Naked struck fear into the hearts of every Liberian during the war.

In this documentary Blahyi admits to some truly staggering statistics. The movie follows him in the years after the war in which he is now a converted Christian minister, giving a testimony to a tribunal that will either recommend that he be prosecuted before the United Nations or that he receive amnesty. He says during the war he was either directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 people. Just let that sink in for a minute before I get into the truly heartless and savage stuff. (Warning, for the squeamish, you may wish to cease reading now.) He encouraged his followers to be merciless monsters who murdered and raped innocent women and children in the process of their attacks. They killed indiscriminately on what Blahyi described as an act of religious devotion where he would offer up countless human lives to ‘the gods’. In perhaps the movie’s most shocking claim he says before each battle they would sacrifice an innocent child and cannibalize his heart in order to ‘gain their spirit’. This is the point at which I began looking at this man on my screen and wondering honestly, why are we giving him this documentary platform? As one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes said, people who murder children should not get documentaries, they should get bullets to the face.

Joshua now spends his life traveling around the region seeking out those very people whose lives he nearly destroyed, in order to beg them for forgiveness. This movie follows him along on a few such journeys and it is in these scenes that this documentary is at its strongest point dramatically speaking. We meet a man in a wheelchair who Blahyi had formerly shot in both legs and then left to bleed to death. The two of them do have reconciliation but you get the sense here that the wheel chair bound man is still holding something back. In another such scene we meet a woman and her 16 year old daughter, who is blind in one eye from where Blahyi struck her in the face with the butt of his rifle when she was just a baby, just before he murdered her father.

We also meet a young man who tells Blahyi that because of him all of his friends and family are dead, and that all of his hope for a normal life is gone. This young man collapses into tears and him and Blahyi have a long hug and embrace. It is as a scene at once both cathartic and disturbing. The woman and her child likewise are overwhelmed with emotion when telling their stories. And in a way, if there is one thing that I think gives this documentary the right to exist, it is these scenes where the focus is not on the supposed redemption of this monster, but on these poor victims who, having been denied the chance at justice, here at least get the chance to confront the man who caused them so much pain, and be able to begin to put this all behind them and move on with the tattered pieces of their lives. In the end, that is the real story of hope to be found here. There is also of course the oddness of being able to be a fly on the wall in these scenes that make this so compelling to watch. It is like taking a journey with a former Nazi guard at Auschwitz who, now being reformed and repentant, must spend the rest of his life begging the families of his countless victims to somehow “forgive” him.

I am not in the position to deliver justice or forgiveness here though, and neither are the film makers here admittedly. Their job is simply to tell a compelling story, and try to stay out of that story’s way, which they have done here . If I have one criticism of them though it’s that this documentary was not nearly balanced enough from the standpoint of providing an opposition view to our main character. A few people do voice doubts about the authenticity of his conversion, but they are few and far between. Perhaps that can be trumped up to fear, or just that this country is so weary of war and conflict that they just wish to give him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, I thought a more thorough job could and should have been done here. As said, a big part of Joshua Blahyi’s story centers around his conversion to Christianity, which he says happened around 1996. In the movie we see him dressed in a suit and speaking to a small congregation (that includes his former child soldiers) in the manner of a low-rent version of Creflo Dollar or some other noted American prosperity evangelist attempting to channel the spirit of James Brown. In his interviews he seems sincere enough, but it was always in the back of my mind, this man was a freaking Warlord who specialized in recruiting children for his campaign, so persuasion is probably not a new development for him.

Here are my final thoughts on Blahyi’s ‘conversion’ though as best as I can put it all together in my mind. If he is faking this whole deal in order to protect his own hide after a life spent as a war criminal, then he is indeed double the monster that he claims to have been at one time, and doubly deserving of a swift bullet to the head, and that makes this documentary all the more frustrating and maddening to watch. However, if he is sincere in his conviction, then this movie has a poetic ring of tragedy to it, as I cannot imagine a harsher fate for him than the hell that it must be to have to continue living his life as he currently does, with constant reminders of the lives that he has ruined all around him. That said, if sincere, he also has his faith to provide him strength, and he claims the hope of doing something good in the community that he spent so many years helping to destroy. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not enlightened enough to appreciate this ‘redemption’ story fully, I can cop to that. I found that I was able to somewhat sympathize with Blahyi in places here, but I find my overall strongest reaction to him is still just an unrelenting shock that a man so heinously evil was allowed to escape justice for so long. That’s all for this review, thanks for reading and I’ll see you all again next time out.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked gets a three out of five: SATISFYING.

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