"The Redemption of General Butt-Naked" opens with a scene in which the self-appointed Liberian evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi holds sway over an appreciative crowd that hangs on his every word. A fervent endorser for the power of faith, Blahyi appears as a galvanizing leader readymade for the spotlight. Having established his formidable stage presence, directors Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion introduce the contradiction of his past: As the widely feared General Butt Naked, Blahyi led a reign of terror against thousands of Liberians during the country's civil war from 1989 to 1996. Siding with the country's former president against various other warring factions, Blahyi's killing spree forms the unnerving shadow hanging over his contemporary presence throughout the film.
In his militant years, the general derived his name from his decision to parade around in the nude, presumably in order to shock his enemies into submission. Although this era of Blahyi's life appears only in still photographs, tales of his rampages by those who survived them reveal a heartless mercenary capable of murdering innocent families with ease. Ironically, the clothed, apparently sane and harmless modern-day Blahyi makes the man seem entirely out of place—the former bloodthirsty warrior has inexplicably cleaned up his act.
Much of the movie follows Blahyi, exiled from Liberia, as he attempts to help his former soldiers rehabilitate their lives and seeks forgiveness from the survivors whose lives he ruined just a few years earlier. Cleared by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Blahyi's ability to live free and proclaim his salvation creates a fascinating sense of moral ambiguity. (No reformed S.S. man could ever parade through Auschwitz.)
Despite its skillful navigation of Blahyi's controversial freedom, the movie lacks enough voices of dissent. Instead, Blahyi's behavior assumes center stage, taking the focus off the mystery of his ideological rebirth, and instead aims to capture the awkward bridge between two personas that his past and present force him to inhabit. Having sought redemption through spiritual awakening, Blahyi walks the streets as if he was cleansed of his sins. But it takes little scrutiny to realize his fate is not that simple.
In a key moment, the filmmakers recall a publicly televised incident in which Blahyi confessed to killing some 20,000 Liberians in a war where the body count had been estimated at 200,000. Blahyi's multiple reconciliations are inherently moving, capturing numerous complex layers of emotions that no actor could possibly convey. Yet his motives are always suspect; even though the underlying drama of these confrontations transcend the boundaries of performance, the movie provocatively refuses to answer the question of whether or not he's putting us on.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With such a bleak topic associated with a civil war largely unknown to American audiences, "Butt Naked" does not have immediate breakout potential, but it could gain wider attention if major news outlets pick up on Blahyi's remarkable story.
criticWIRE grade: B+