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Meet The 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” Directors

Meet The 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "The Redemption of General Butt Naked" Directors

Joshua Milton Blahyi, aka General Butt Naked, murdered thousands during Liberia’s horrific 14-year civil war. Today this once-brutal warlord has renounced his sadistic past and reinvented himself as evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi. In a riveting cinema vérité journey that unfolds over the course of five years, filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion follow Blahyi’s unrelenting crusade to redeem his life. Facing those he once terrorized, preaching where he once murdered, Blahyi is on a quest to save his soul.

Can a man really change? Should we be judged by what we have done, or by who we are now? Whatever you make of him—liar or madman, charlatan or genuine repentant— General Butt Naked is certainly a mesmerizing character. Challenging our preconceived notions of evil, justice, and faith, this shocking story of one man’s remarkable journey will resonate with anyone who has ever questioned his or her capacity to forgive. [Synopsis courtesy of the Sundance Institute]

“The Redemption of General Butt Naked”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion
Executive Producer: Gregory Henry, David Shadrack Smith
Producer: Daniele Anastasion, Eric Strauss
Composer: Justin Melland
Cinematographer: Eric Strauss, Ryan Hill, Peter Hutchens
Editor: Jeremy Siefer
Coproducers: Ryan Hill, Ryan Lobo

Responses courtesy of “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” directors Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion.

Beginnings in anthropology and international development…

Prior to becoming filmmakers, we pursued individual interests in anthropology and international development. Later, we would each come to recognize documentary storytelling as a way to creatively engage with similar themes. We both met and worked together years later at National Geographic, and quickly realized that we were drawn to the same kinds of stories.

Five shoots in five years…

Eric read a small blurb about General Butt Naked years ago and he was instantly captivated by the issues raised by Joshua’s story. On one level, there was a fascination with the bizarre details of Joshua’s past, and how General Butt Naked came into being. However, at the core of the story were very profound and challenging questions about the nature of evil, justice and faith.

In 2005, Eric went to Ghana to meet with Joshua at a Liberian refugee camp to find out if his story was true, and as layered as it appeared. After returning from that trip, Eric and Daniele decided to partner together and traveled to Africa for five more shoots over the next five years.

Wrestling with conflicting emotions…

We wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a perpetrator. It’s very easy to distance oneself from figures who are responsible for horrible crimes. We wanted to try to collapse that distance, as difficult and uncomfortable as that may be.

Joshua is a very complicated individual, and getting to know him was an intense experience. The fact that a human being can at times be warm and funny, yet also responsible for the deaths of thousands is something that’s very difficult to reconcile.

We attempted to give viewers a taste of the emotional journey we went on over the course of a five-years. While we were often seduced by Joshua’s charisma, we were equally horrified by his past. Our hope is that audiences will wrestle with these conflicting emotions as well.

“We made this film to raise questions, not to answer them…”

A lot of people encouraged us to take a firm stance on Joshua and give a clear answer as to whether or not his transformation was genuine. This was never our intention. We made this film to raise questions, not to answer them.

We felt that a yes or no answer would never do justice to the complex issues Joshua’s story raises, and we labored with our editor Jeremy Siefer to set a tone in the film that reflected our own struggles and questions. We tried to structure the story so that audiences have to decide for themselves whether they accept or reject Joshua’s transformation, as well as his attempts at reconciliation.

Coming upon new directions…

During our final trip to Liberia, while shooting in downtown Monrovia, our crew bumped into Emmanuel, one of the young men we had filmed years earlier in the group home that Joshua created to rehabilitate former fighters. We discovered that Emmanuel was once again living on the streets, and that he was very unhappy with the way things had turned out for him after Joshua fled Liberia and abandoned the group home. Emmanuel’s disappointment in Joshua became an important point in the final act of our film, yet we stumbled across it accidentally.

Candid access…

It’s rare for a perpetrator like Joshua to be so candid about his past and let filmmakers follow him for so many years. We expect a lot of debate over whether or not Joshua is genuine. In many ways, we would consider disagreement and debate to be a measure of success.

Documentary traditions…

Intimate documentary portraits like Bennett Miller’s “The Cruise,” Errol Morris’ “Mr. Death,” and Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” remained a constant inspiration, as did Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir,” which tackles the aftermath of war and how those involved with violence cope on a psychological level.

Coming up for the filmmakers…

We are both currently working on “Hard Time,” an Emmy-nominated prison series for National Geographic, and have two feature ideas in development.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

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