Ministers talk about forgiveness, but few preachers have sought forgiveness for as much as Joshua Milton Blahyi.
Blahyi is an evangelical minister preaching the gospel in Liberia. But it's his life before his conversion to Christianity, as a warlord responsible for the deaths of thousands in Liberia's brutal civil war, for which he is trying to atone.
According to the directors of the documentary "The Redemption of General Butt Naked," which premieres Saturday, Jan. 22, at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, many people in Liberia seem willing to forgive him.
"We were stunned by the openness Liberians had, the way they approached the idea of forgiveness," Daniele Anastasion, who directed the film with Eric Strauss, said in a phone interview. "Their willingness to forgive was somewhat shocking, given the circumstances. Were they acting out of fear, or did they want it to all go away? Possibly. But people were genuinely seeking a way to get over the trauma through forgiveness."
There is a lot to be forgiven in Liberia, which suffered through raging civil wars from 1989 to 2003. At the height of the violence was Blahyi, known as General Butt Naked because he led his AK-47-toting child soldiers while wearing no clothing.
Blahyi was guided by the supernatural power of "juju," Anastasion said. "Fighters believed they could protect themselves with charms. That's why he fought naked."
In 1996, as the first phase of the Liberian civil war was winding down, Blahyi saw a vision of Jesus Christ telling him to repent of his sins. He converted to Christianity, put down his weapons and became a preacher ministering to Liberian refugees in Ghana and to his former soldiers.
Watching Blahyi preach is intense. "He still has this sway over people, this charisma, this magnetic personality," Anastasion said. "People respond to him. It makes you remember who he was."
Strauss added: "In a place like Liberia, where there's so much wreckage, people are looking for hope. There can be moments of hope in these revivals. It's easy for us to judge, but there are times when the church is offering quite a bit for people."
Another part of Blahyi's road to forgiveness is shown in the film, when he testified before the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and acknowledged his role in as many as 20,000 murders during the civil war.
"He has done some horrible things," Strauss said. "But it's the Liberians' situation. It's not up to us [to judge]."
The question that Strauss and Anastasion wrestled with while making the movie is whether Blahyi's conversion is genuine.
Strauss notes that Blahyi's change didn't happen in prison, which is common with people seeking to lessen their sentences for their crimes. "He left it at the height of it all and chose not to come back."
"Is he Butt Naked? No," Anastasion said. "Has he had a transformation? Certainly. What he is doing today is it enough? Ultimately, it's something for the Liberians to decide."
Faith on film
John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival, has noted a number of films with religious themes playing on this year's docket. Here are 10 titles with religious overtones:
"Abraxas" • A Buddhist monk in Japan has a crisis of faith, which leads him to return to his punk-rock past.
"The Catechism Cataclysm" • An apathetic priest goes on sabbatical, taking a wild canoe trip with a high-school buddy.
"Circumstance" • A liberal Iranian family is rocked when the prodigal son returns as a conservative Muslim.
"Higher Ground" • A woman (Vera Farmiga, who directed) seeks self-identity within the confines of a fundamentalist Christian community.
"How to Die in Oregon" • A documentary that explores the morality and practicality of Oregon's assisted-suicide law.
"Martha Marcy May Marlene" • A young woman escapes a Manson-like cult leader, but must come to terms with "normal" life.
"The Mill & the Cross" • An impressionistic look at the creation of Pieter Bruegel's 1564 crucifixion painting "The Procession to Calvary."
"Red State" • Kevin Smith's horror-thriller, with a fundamentalist preacher (Michael Parks) inspired by the homophobic Rev. Fred Phelps.
"Salvation Boulevard" • A megachurch pastor (Pierce Brosnan) tries to keep a potential scandal quiet in this comedy.
"Take Shelter" • A man (Michael Shannon) starts having apocalyptic visions, and his behavior terrifies his wife and neighbors.
Sean P. Means