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'Iron Ladies' Chronicles Liberian Leadership


Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first women elected president of an African nation just over two years ago. More than a decade of brutal civil war had left the economy, the infrastructure, and the people's psyches in tatters. So how could this 60-ish grandmother possibly turn all this around? Her efforts and those of the women working in her government inspired a new documentary, "Iron Ladies of Liberia." It's part of the Independent Lens series, and it's set to air tonight on PBS.

Joining us now to talk about the film are directors Daniel Junge. He's in Austin, Texas. And Siatta Scott Johnson in Cleveland, Ohio. Welcome to you both.

Mr. DANIEL JUNGE (Director, "Iron Ladies of Liberia"): Thank you. Happy to be here.

Ms. SIATTA SCOTT JOHNSON (Director, "Iron Ladies of Liberia"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, this story really is out of Shakespeare, wouldn't you agree? I can see why you were attracted to this story, but how did the idea of focusing on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's first year in office take shape?

Mr. JUNGE: Well, Michel, the film really arose out of an opportunity through some family connections from our producer. We had tenuous access to her. We didn't know what that access would be, so we packed our bags and flew off to Liberia to film her inauguration and the first few weeks. We really convinced her that the important of documenting this - really, this important year in her history.

MARTIN: Siatta, what about you? The story is not just a story to you. I mean this is your life.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah, I was so excited when Daniel told me that I'm going to be a part of this historic documentary. I was like, wow! I needed to do this. All along, I wanted to be somebody that would help to bring change to Liberia, and I found myself in this documentary, and I knew this documentary was going to bring a good change.

MARTIN: Did you live in Liberia through the entire conflict?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes, I've been all through the conflict. The very first time I left Liberia was to come to the U.S. to do the narration of the documentary.


Ms. JOHNSON: That was my very first time leaving Liberia.

MARTIN: So, Daniel, as she pointed out, the film begins with her inauguration in January 2006, but could you just help us, you know, set the stage. You know former President Charles Taylor's currently being tried for war crimes in an international tribunal. He still retains support. I think some people might be shocked to hear that. So what is it that when you went in you were expecting to find, and how is it perhaps different from what you were expecting?

Mr. JUNGE: Well, the country had been through a decade and a half of civil strife. The infrastructure was destroyed. As you mention, the former president was at that point in exile in Nigeria, but the people were hopeful and really hopeful for a change. And in fact in the election, Ellen was not the frontrunner. It appeared that she would be beat be a famous soccer star, George Weah. But I think at a certain point, the people wanted a paradigm shift. They wanted a whole new beginning and female leadership. They just wanted a whole new shift in perspective.

MARTIN: Here's a clip from a film that makes it clear what she's up against. Let's play it.

(Soundbite from film "Iron Ladies of Liberia")

Unidentified Man (Former Liberian Rebel Leader): As you start to do things negatively, deliberately, then of course we have to talk to her. And if that doesn't work, we'll have to take steps to make sure she stops doing what is bad. And we'll reach a point where we will have to intervene.

MARTIN: And I think - help me, that's a former rebel leader, correct? He's a member of the opposition?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. Siatta, how common is that attitude? And his voice is very calm, but if you kind of look at the kind of the kind of context in which he's saying it, it's a pretty threatening stance that he's taking. I'd like to ask you how common you think is that attitude, and why do you think that is? That you think it's because Ellen's a female, or you think people are just so used to using force to get their way?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes, people are just used to using force. People are just used to threatening people to get their way. Not because she's a lady, but I think the threatening attitude of Liberians is most common.

Mr. JUNGE: Michel, I think it's also important to point out, as the president does in the film, that these are men, and when I say men, they all are men who have lost power and privilege from the previous regime. So they don't necessarily represent the entire society, but they do have a loud voice.

MARTIN: One of the things that you make clear in the film is that she's got some very different audiences and very different constituencies that she's got to address. One is the international community. I mean she's got to persuade them that Liberia is, you know, safe and a stable place to invest. But she's also got to deal with folks who have had a long history of broken promises. And, Daniel, just talk for me a minute about how she does this.

Mr. JUNGE: I think what we're hearing here is how dexterous Ellen is as a politician. She really has the ability to speak to many different people in many different tones of voice. I mean, she does come from the World Bank and from the international community she has - she's extremely eloquent and able to operate on those levels, but she also can get down with the people and speak Liberian dialect English and also speak to their hearts. She can use a hard hand when she needs to, but she can also be soft and compassionate, and I think this makes her, you know, an incredibly efficient leader.

MARTIN: The film makes two points, I think, particularly clearly. One is you know, as Daniel, you said, she's a woman in a man's world. I mean she is the only...

Mr. JUNGE: That's true.

MARTIN: Female leader of an African country, and there are a lot of sort of regional groups of which she is a part - she's always the only woman in the room. But she's also tried to achieve a paradigm shift. I'd like to just play a short clip about where she kind of expresses her philosophy on this point.

President ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF (Liberia): We have had many governments here in the recent past that have relied upon brute force, instilling fear into people. We say that you can still exercise leadership without repression. As far as I'm concerned, so far in this administration, it's working better than the use of force.

MARTIN: Siatta, I'm going to put you on the spot here. And it's not fair to sort of make you speak for the whole of the country, but do you think that your countrymen and women understand that she's trying to change the way that leaders relate to the citizens. Do you think that they agree with her, or do you think that there are still people who are hungering for the kind of the strong man style?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah, there are a lot of people saying that she's so lenient, she's so motherly, and they want that force because they believe that Liberia just left 40 years of war, and there are a lot of tough Liberians that need tough hands. But on the other hand, people are also admiring her style, that everybody have the right to say the things they want to say, and they don't get arrested. They don't get looked for.

MARTIN: So what would each of you like people to draw from the film?

Mr. JUNGE: Well for audiences here in the States, I'm hoping that people understand that we're complicit with things that happen in a country like Liberia. I want people to question whether women are equal to or better than men as leaders. Ellen's the first to point out that simply by virtue of gender, it doesn't make a person a better leader, but that there are a set of values and virtues that women bring to the job that's lacking in most governments, including our own.

And finally, I just want people to enjoy a positive story coming out of Africa, an overwhelmingly positive story.

MARTIN: Siatta, what did you learn from this about - did you have any interesting insights about sort of seeing women in these roles and watching how they did their thing?

Ms. JOHNSON: I learned that as a woman, it's not just a gender. It's like the quality you have in you. You have to have the quality of leadership in you, and you can be a good leader.

MARTIN: Siatta Scott Johnson joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland, and Daniel Junge joined us from Austin, Texas. They are co-directors of "Iron Ladies of Liberia," a documentary for the PBS series, Independent Lens. It airs tonight, and you'll want to check your local listings.

This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.