Iron Ladies Of Liberia

Iron Ladies Of Liberia

****1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

“The days of a domineering executive are over!” booms Liberia’s new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in this powerful and personal year-in-the-life documentary.

Her first year as president. Africa’s first woman president. Liberia’s first year free from war for almost 15 years. And what a job she has walked into… There can be few countries so utterly impoverished.

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Iron Ladies Of Liberia doesn’t go into detail about what it’s like to scratch an existence in this small West African nation, just south of Sierra Leone. It’s about Ellen, almost like a video diary, taken by a friend, incredibly intimate.

It’s OK that it doesn’t cover all the problems, because it shows the ones Ellen has to deal with: endemic corruption, a demobilised army on strike, chaos and disorder in the streets, the manipulations of the old political elite, still hanging on to power with their embezzled riches. It doesn’t show the fishermen in dugout canoes, paddling over high waves to brave the ocean, or the plight of over half a million returning refugees.

It doesn’t need to. Liberia is too much for most people to grasp. It’s an enormous heaving water melon of a country, exploding with colour, passion, violence and seeds - seeds of hope for the next generation.

It tells you enough about the problems to get you thinking - imagine 90 per cent unemployment, no running water, no sewerage, no mains power. How, you might ask, could a thriving city of more than a million souls manage? Somehow they do, some in gruelling poverty, others in pleasant tropical surroundings. Then you learn that the annual budget is going to be $129m. For the year! And how their national debt is hovering around $3.7 billion. Where, pray tell, do you start?

The story is told by a mother of two, who has reinvented herself as a journalist, now that peace has come. She tells how she lost her childhood in the horror of war, how she hopes her children can enjoy something better, how she asked the new president if she could do a fly-on-the-wall doc of her first year (she said yes).

Then there’s the international dimension: George Bush, Condi, George Soros, Chinese President Hu Jinto. Or the local World Bank rep, Luigi, whom I used to meet at parties acting like the owner of a new modern art gallery in Milan.

But this film isn’t just about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The Iron Ladies include the new chief of police, brought back from a comfortable suburban home in New Jersey to clean up the force (What you don’t see is the extensive international police force that’s been there since 2004). Or the new, strikingly attractive Minister of Finance and her female colleagues at the ministries of Commerce and Justice. And, of course, the narrator who engages you completely with her own struggles, views and problems.

You feel the urgency to improve things. “We’re in a hurry to make a difference, to make things happen on the ground. We have to. The alternative is war,” explains the young Finance Minister. You feel their dilemmas – deal swiftly with potentially violent street demonstrations and risk accusations of brutality and severity, or let chaos reign. Another of the Iron Ladies hits the nail on the head: “In Africa, 100 per cent democracy is not working. Especially after war.”

She’s so right. Nobody would respect a wimp. And Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her Iron Ladies are tackling the problems head on, often telling people what they don’t want to hear, and being fiercely direct with the major powers, who hold the purse strings.

This is a compelling and greatly informative update on what’s going on in Liberia and a nice profile of the president and her (iron) ladies.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2008
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A year in the life of the first female African president.

Director: Daniel Junge, Siatta Scott Johnson

Starring: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Beatrice Munah Sieh, Antoinette Sayeh

Year: 2007

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Human Rights 2008

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