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Redemption tale leaves some uncomfortable questions

The Redemption of General Butt Naked is a riveting documentary which leaves the viewer grappling with uncomfortable questions about the very meaning of forgiveness.

Joshua Milton Blahyi was one of Liberia's most brutal warlords during the troubled African country's 1989 to 2003 civil war.

Nicknamed “General Butt Naked” because of his penchant for fighting nude, he and his soldiers (many of them children) committed unspeakable atrocities and indulged in the wholesale slaughter of innocents.

But now the war is over and Joshua has become an evangelical Christian preacher, spreading a message of peace and reconciliation.

This film follows in his footsteps, from the church pulpit to the streets of Liberia's capital Monrovia, as he seeks to convert his former soldiers and to gain forgiveness from his former victims.

Needless to say this makes for disturbing viewing. Shortly after an opening scene showing one of Joshua's dynamic sermons, the film, through interviews and some limited footage, quickly conveys the sheer enormity of his past: child sacrifice, torture, murderous rampages, victims wailing in horror, an ecstasy of bloodlust.

This immediately forces one to ask: can someone capable of doing these things be remotely capable of genuine remorse?

The answer will colour every single one of Joshua's actions and words in the film. According to interviews with directors Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion, the film deliberately does not try to answer the question. But the viewer can.

We see him gather his former child soldiers off the street, including a destitute amputee called Senegalese. We learn that Senegalese was also a victim of Joshua's, hence the amputations.

And we see Senegalese forgive Joshua almost immediately when they meet. This is a recurring theme throughout the film; hardly any of the victims that Joshua attempts to reconcile with refuse to forgive him.

Does this mean he deserves forgiveness? Or is it just an indication of the sheer force of Joshua's personality and charisma?

Or does it simply show that his victims are too utterly terrified of him to be able to resist forgiving him? Again, the film does not answer these questions. But the viewer can.

There is one particularly disturbing reconciliation when a woman describes how Joshua smashed her young daughter in the eye with the butt of his rifle before killing the child's father in front of her.

The daughter, now blind in one eye, is sitting right there, crying. Joshua sheds not one tear but offers to be “as much of a father to her as he can”.

The two females then end up at his church and reluctantly allow themselves to be paraded in front of the congregation.

“I didn't want to go up there,” the mother says, with the expression of one whose spirit is irretrievably broken. “But I couldn't refuse a man of God.”

Yes, it seems that Joshua enjoys a certain power over people via his fiery preaching. A side effect of his conversion? Or a hint of his true motivation?

Yet again, the film doesn't answer this question, but the viewer most certainly can. And the answer is terrifying.

A scene from 'The Redemption of General Butt Naked'

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Published March 18, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated March 18, 2011 at 9:43 am)

Redemption tale leaves some uncomfortable questions

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