Can Christ forgive anything? Disturbing documentary begs the question

Some films hang uneasily in the mind long after you watch them, tugging at your preconceptions and knee-jerk reactions and forcing you to re-evaluate them for months or even years afterwards.

“The Redemption of General Butt Naked” is such a film. It opens Friday at Metro Cinema at the Garneau.

As the title suggests, this is a film about redemption, but it also questions whether redemption is always sincere – and also, by itself, is it enough without punishment? These are tough questions in a deeply disturbing film.

The title character was a warlord in a civil war in Liberia, West Africa, in 1989. His brigade was famous for both their nudity, which they believed gave them faster access to supernatural powers, and notorious for their savagery. The general and his child soldier troops (some as young as 11 years old) butchered indiscriminately, sometimes shooting, but most often hacking their victims to death with machetes. They believed they were protected by spirits, invincible. By his own admission, the general says, “I just used to enjoy putting people in pain, yeah.”

Seven years before the civil war ended, the general laid down his arms and vanished. Ten years later, an apparently changed man, he returned to Liberia, now calling himself Joshua Milton Blahyi, an evangelist preacher. He claimed to be reformed, reborn in Christ, and travelled the country begging forgiveness from both his former victims and their families, and trying to help his former soldiers, many of whom were now reduced to begging on the streets. He appeared before the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a government body looking into war crimes. The film shows many of these emotional re-meetings and covers his progress over several years, pointing out the complexities, ambiguities, and incongruities in the life of an apparently sincere and charismatic man, but one who can never escape the burdens of his past crimes.

The film is made by veteran documentary film-makers Daniele Anastasion (who directed the Emmy-winning Inside The Body Trade and KKK: Inside American Terror) and produced by Eric Strauss (producer/director of Heroin Crisis about the Afghan heroin trade and Iraq’s Guns For Hire, a profile of the private security industry in Iran). They are not strangers to controversial subjects. Credit should also go to editor, Jeremy Siefer, for helping the filmmakers always find the emotional core of their footage. Since the film was shot over a long time span, it returns to the subject through various changes in fortune and circumstance and will be all the more likely to split audiences into factions by refusing to take sides and putting that audience in the position of judge and jury, forcing them to search their own consciences and decide whether the man depicted is devil or angel, manipulator or penitent, or some unstable combination of both.