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‘Iron Ladies’ doc showcases Liberia’s strong female voices

Talia Whyte

When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf assumed the presidency of Liberia in 2006, she had to hit the ground running. As if becoming Africa’s first elected female head of state was not daunting enough, it fell to her to fix many of the problems left over from nearly two decades of civil war, ethnic conflict and social strife.

The PBS documentary “Iron Ladies of Liberia,” which debuts on WGBH 44 today and will be re-aired Sunday night at 9 p.m., follows both the turbulent first year of Johnson-Sirleaf’s administration and the many talented female politicians and ministers helping her turn the country around.

Filmmaker Daniel Junge and Liberian media activist Siatta Scott Johnson were given full access to Johnson-Sirleaf’s day-to-day affairs prior to her inauguration in January 2006.

“She was reluctant at first, but she finally agreed to be a part of this,” Junge said during a recent telephone interview. “I felt it was important to document her administration for historical purposes.”

Johnson-Sirleaf accomplished much during that first year. Highlights include the restoration of electricity to the Liberian capital of Monrovia for the first time in years, as well as the negotiation of a debt relief agreement with the United States.

But there were stumbling blocks, as well. Johnson-Sirleaf came into office without much support from the nation’s male politicians, including then-Speaker of the House Edwin Snowe, former son-in-law of Liberian warlord and president Charles Taylor.

To counter the patriarchal opposition, the president surrounded herself with a cabinet comprised mostly of capable women, including police chief Beatrice Munah Sieh, a former Trenton, N.J., middle school teacher, and Minister of Finance Dr. Antoinette Sayeh.

Sayeh and Johnson-Sirleaf work closely together in “Iron Ladies” to bring down the culture of corruption that has festered in Liberia for many years.

Sayeh says her ministry operated like a “mafia” during the Taylor years, noting that she had to fire most senior officials to start off with a clean slate. Throughout the documentary, she spends most of her days working to clean out corruption and dealing with the national debt, while at the same time trying to convince international donors that Liberia is a viable country to support.

“Women have not been, to the same extent as men, party to all of the bad things of the past,” Sayeh said in the film. “They certainly were very strong voices against the atrocities in Liberia in the war, and they fought very, very hard to make sure that the democratic process worked this time around. And so, this is our biggest opportunity to change Liberia.”

Liberia has a longstanding relationship with the United States. Freed African American slaves immigrated to the West African nation in the early 19th century, declaring it an independent republic in 1847. In 1926, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company opened one of the world’s largest rubber plantations in the country.
For years, Firestone has been criticized for human rights violations against Liberian workers. In “Iron Ladies,” Johnson-Sirleaf takes a stand for the plantation’s employees, getting Firestone to increase salaries.

However, the problems with Firestone have increased Liberian interest in another superpower eager to do business in Africa — the Chinese government.

Johnson-Sirleaf and her cabinet are seen in the film having multiple meetings with Chinese officials, much to the dismay of the White House.

“Ellen is a really adept person,” Junge said. “She is loyal to the United States, but she needs help for her country where she can get it and that option might be China.”

Junge said Johnson-Sirleaf saw the first cut of the film last year. The president, he said, was highly impressed with her portrayal. Her only complaint? It did not include enough voices from women. The filmmakers happily compiled more.

The film also follows Scott Johnson, the Liberian media activist, as she deals with being a female filmmaker living in a male-dominated society in transition.

At last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Scott Johnson was surprised to get a standing ovation after the “Iron Ladies” screening — Junge said he pulled her aside afterwards and told her that not all filmmakers get applause like that after their first film.

At a time when New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is involved in a hotly contested race for the chance to become America’s first female president, Junge believes that “Iron Ladies” has the potential to change Americans’ views about women in leadership roles around the world.

“I hope this film will [lead viewers to] question [America’s] relationship with Liberia, the developing world and women in Liberia,” he said. I especially want people to have a positive view of women in Africa.”