Sundance Film Festival: 'The Redemption of General Butt Naked'

Reporting from Park City, Utah — If character truly is destiny, what does that say about the mind-warping trajectory of the charismatic evangelical Christian preacher Joshua Milton Blahyi, once known as General Butt Naked?

That name may sound silly, but it's not a joke to those who survived Liberia's 14-year civil war — or the tens of thousands who didn't.

A stark naked warlord in that struggle, a man who has admitted to killing thousands of people and doing unspeakable things during the 1989-2003 conflict, Blahyi is still so well-known in the country that, says filmmaker Daniele Anastasion, "when he walks through the airport in Monrovia you can hear it around you, 'that's Butt Naked.' People still fear him."

Co-directed by Eric Strauss and Anastasion, "The Redemption of General Butt Naked," which premieres Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival and does not yet have distribution, is a compelling portrait of an extraordinarily complex personal odyssey, a film that explores both the power and the limitations of faith and forgiveness. "There are so many larger-than-life aspects here," says Strauss, "that if anyone had written it as a feature script it would have sounded absurd."

Blahyi's story is so unusual, and his personality so strong and vibrant, that the filmmakers found — as Anastasion put it — "it was challenging to keep track of yourself, of your own reactions. He can be warm but then you remember what he did in the past. In the course of a day our opinion of him would change, we tried to keep track of each other, of where we each were. It messes with your head a little bit."

The filmmakers, both in their 30s, began working together at the National Geographic channel. The project started when Strauss came across a mention of Blahyi in a book called "The World's Most Dangerous Places."

"It was just a tiny blurb about a notorious warlord who had killed thousands and was now walking the streets preaching truth and reconciliation," he remembers. "I wondered, 'Could someone like this really exist?'"

Adds Anastasion: "Was a transformation this extreme even possible? And how would that play out in the real world?"

Filming the answers to that, partially due to inevitable funding difficulties, took the team a very long five years. Yet, says Strauss, as it turned out, "it's a far better film because of the struggles we had."

For one thing, during that period Blahyi agreed to admit his crimes before Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, something few warlords agreed to do, and the consequences of that testimony were ones even he did not anticipate. That five-year period also allowed the filmmakers to interview many of the people critical to Blahyi's story.

These include preacher John Kun Kun, the man who started the general's conversion process by boldly coming to talk to him and insisting that God had a plan for him. Then there's a former child soldier, nicknamed Senegalese, Blahyi's second in command, who was the victim of one of his horrible acts of violence, an act directly related to Kun's visit.

The filmmakers met Senegalese because Blahyi regularly seeks out people he has savagely wronged and asks for their forgiveness. "He genuinely puts himself out there, he doesn't have to put himself in these uncomfortable situations," says Strauss. "He literally runs into victims or families of victims on a daily basis."

One of the most unnerving things the filmmakers discovered is that for Blahyi there was always a spiritual dimension to his actions, even when he was killing. Having served as a priest for the Krahn people, he felt he was fighting for this tribe and, says Strauss, "he was a deeply spiritually motivated person, and the persona of General Butt Naked came out of a traditional belief system. He says his god told him nudity would make him invincible to bullets, and when people saw him they felt it must be true, that he was protected. He went to bed at night and thought he was a hero."

This transformational story has so many aspects to it that the filmmakers have intentionally not tied it up into a neat package. "This is such a story that can easily veer into black and white, an easy story to make overwrought," says Anastasion. "We didn't want to fall into the trap of taking a stance on Joshua. We wanted viewers to decide, to let the audience absorb the material. There needs to be an appetite for complexity."

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