Meet the IDA Documentary Awards Nominees: Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion of 'The Redemption of General Butt Naked'
By KJ Relth
Editor's Note: Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion’s The Redemption of General Butt Naked has been nominated in the Best Feature category at this year's IDA Documentary Awards, to be held at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles on Friday, December 2. Below is an interview we conducted with the filmmakers in November in recognition of the film’s nomination.
Synopsis: The Redemption of General Butt Naked follows Joshua Milton Blahyi--aka General Butt Naked--a brutal African warlord who has renounced his violent past and reinvented himself as a Christian evangelist. Today, Blahyi travels the nation of Liberia as a preacher, seeking out those he once victimized in search of an uncertain forgiveness. Filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion track his often troubling path up-close, finding both the genuine and disconcerting in Blahyi’s efforts, and raising questions about the limits of faith and forgiveness in the absence of justice.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Eric Strauss & Daniele Anastasion: Before becoming filmmakers, we each pursued interests in anthropology and international development. Later, we each came to see 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.
IDA: What inspired you to make Redemption?
ES & DA: We met and developed our working relationship while producing a documentary for National Geographic Television about life inside a maximum security prison. The piece chronicled the lives of two gang members who were attempting to leave their criminal pasts behind.
During this time, we both recognized a mutual fascination with stories that deal with the perpetrators of crimes---what leads people to make flawed choices and how they live with their mistakes. We wanted to make a film that challenged audiences to examine their own ideas about the nature of evil, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. We were drawn to Joshua Blahyi’s story because his claim of transformation tests those questions in a big way.
IDA: What were some of the obstacles and challenges in making this film? How did you overcome them?
ES & DA: Creatively speaking, the greatest obstacle we faced was Joshua Blahyi himself.
It’s extremely rare for a perpetrator like Blahyi to be so candid about his past and to let filmmakers follow him for so many years. Getting to know Blahyi was an intense and emotionally difficult experience. The fact that he can at times be likeable, yet also responsible for the deaths of countless people, is something that’s hard to reconcile.
Ultimately, we chose to tell the story in a way that reflected our own struggles and questions. Over the years, a few people encouraged us to give a clear answer as to whether Blahyi’s transformation was genuine. But that wouldn’t have been true to our experience. Our opinions of Blahyi were constantly shifting, and sometimes we didn’t even agree with each other’s assessment. There was so much complexity in what we witnessed that it became difficult to distill it down to a simple message. We wanted audiences to confront this complexity as well.
We made this film to raise questions, but we don’t pretend to know how to answer them.
IDA: What kind of cameras did you use for this film?
ES & DA: The Redemption of General Butt Naked was filmed over a five-year period. During that time, the technology available to us changed significantly. Our crew made five separate trips to shoot in Liberia and Ghana, using three different cameras. We began production shooting on a Panasonic HVX200, or P2, then moved to a Sony XDCAM EX1, and finally completed principle photography in 2010 using a Panasonic HDX900.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the process from pre- to post-production?
ES & DA: In many ways our vision--and the themes and ideas we hoped to question--have remained the same since we first discovered Blahyi’s story.
When we started shooting, we hoped to be finished after one year of following his story. However, we ran into funding challenges that made it difficult for us to return to Liberia as quickly as we had hoped.
One year stretched into multiple trips over five years. During that time, the narrative of the film was shaped by some very unexpected events: Blahyi’s decision to appear before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), his exile to Ghana after the TRC’s final report, the disillusionment of his friends and family, and his return to Liberia in an attempt to reconcile with his past and present failures. Had we been able to raise enough funds to complete principle photography right from the start, we would not have captured these events over the long term.
IDA: As you've screened Redemption, how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been the most surprising or expected about their reactions?
ES & DA: Our screenings and audience reactions have been intense. We have always anticipated--and hoped for--a spirited debate about Blahyi, and the range of visceral reactions has not disappointed us. After one screening in Toronto, a local university student told us that he “kind of hated” us for making the film, for asking him to occupy such an uncomfortable emotional space. Then he engaged us for the next half-hour with extremely thought-provoking questions.
For many months, we labored with our editor Jeremy Siefer to set a tone in the film that neither affirmed nor denied Blahyi’s transformation, or his attempts at reconciliation. We wanted to present all of the contradictions and complexity that we experienced and allow viewers to arrive at their own conclusions.
What’s perhaps most surprising is when the occasional audience member doesn’t recognize the ambiguity, and instead thinks we’ve made a definitive case for or against Blahyi.
IDA: What documentary films or documentary filmmakers have served as inspirations for you?
ES & DA: Intimate, documentary character portraits like Bennett Miller’s The Cruise, Errol Morris’ Mr. Death, and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man were all powerful sources of inspiration, as was Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, which helped to inform our thinking on the aftermath of war and how those involved with violence cope on a psychological level.