When producer Henry Ansbacher and I look back on how, weeks before her inauguration, we learned we might have access to the first days of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s term in office as Liberia’s president, it’s funny to think how, at the time, we thought this might make for an interesting short film. One year and 500 taped hours later, IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA proved to be more than just an interesting short film.
This indeed was appetizing subject matter for a filmmaker—a chance not only to see the inner workings of government at the highest level, but also an opportunity to explore the resonant subjects of female leadership, post-conflict re-development and democracy in the developing world. Perhaps most importantly, it offered an opportunity to witness—as our other producer Jonathan Stack calls it—“the most unabashedly positive story to come out of Africa since Nelson Mandela.” This comes from a producer whose last experience in Liberia was dodging bullets during the country’s brutal civil war.
The door cracked open for us to film the president’s inauguration for two weeks, and we firmly wedged our foot in that door, ultimately filming for a year with our Liberian crew. Often filming IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA proved to be an exercise in self-discipline. The task of simply keeping the camera steady and in focus, while remaining neutral to the significance of what we were shooting, was, to say the least, difficult. Not only were we privy to the inner workings of government at a level allowed to few in film history, and witnessing history being made by Africa’s first female president, we were also fortunate to be present at critical and possibly history-changing moments in President Sirleaf’s first dramatic year. So it was with difficulty that we had to anesthetize ourselves to these realizations just to keep the camera in focus.
As much as this proved a difficult task for our non-Liberian crew, for our Liberian co-director Siatta Johnson it was an even greater challenge. Here is a woman who, like most Liberians, lost everything during the country’s wars. Now, in Sirleaf’s presidency, she sees her first prospect for a “normal” life (a very low bar, measured by Western standards). “I’m not a partisan,” she often said, but we would catch her smiling when filming the president.
Like the best of politicians, President Sirleaf is adept at constantly reacting to her environment, and yet she was able to disregard our presence, even at moments in which her leadership may have appeared fragile.
Like the best of politicians, President Sirleaf is adept at constantly reacting to her environment, and yet she was able to disregard our presence, even at moments in which her leadership may have appeared fragile. While, for the most part, she ignored our cameras (a blessing for filmmakers), producer Jonathan Stack told me that there would come a time when the president would give us “a conspiratorial look”—when she would be willing not only to let us film, but also bring us into her process. “Then,” Jonathan said, “then we’ll know we’ve got a film.”
That moment came towards the end of production, in a heated conversation between the president and representatives of the World Bank regarding Liberia’s debt relief. At a particularly rancorous moment the president looked my way. It was at a moment like this when typically we would be invited to leave the meeting. But this look was different. This look was to make sure we were rolling—a conspiratorial look —before she leveled into the men.
Indeed, we knew then we had a film.
Personally I’m honored to have been a witness and, hopefully, to have appropriately documented this critical chapter in African history, thus helping to open a wider dialogue on the themes mentioned above. While it’s easy to become a cheerleader for Ellen as she confronts her Herculean tasks, I don’t want the film to be agitprop for her nor against the dominant model in African politics, but rather for viewers to appreciate the complexity of the situation, including our complicity as Westerners. That viewers ask their own questions, not the least of which would be: Are women intrinsically better leaders than men? I have my answer to that one, but I expect audiences will come up with their own.