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Iron Ladies of Liberia 2007


Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Henry Ansbacher and Jonathan Stack, co-produced by Micah Schaffer and Zubin Cooper
Directed by Daniel Junge, co-directed by Siatta Scott Johnson
DVD, color, 88 min.

Sr. High - Adult
African Studies, Gender Studies, Political Science Women's Studies

Date Entered: 07/25/2008

Reviewed by Sue F. Phelps, Washington State University, Vancouver, WA

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, known to her constituents as the “Iron Lady” and sometimes as “Old Ma”, was inaugurated president of Liberia January 16, 2006. In her inaugural address she declared, “the days of the empirical presidency of a domineering and threatening chief executive are over.” Because Sirleaf is the first female elected head of state in Africa, Siatta Scott Johnson, the woman journalist and co-director of this documentary, poses these questions on behalf of herself, her family and the world. “Can a woman make a difference?” “Can a woman lead us in peace and turn the country around?”

Omuahtte Africa Media, formed at the end of the civil war with the goal of documenting this new chapter in the history of Liberia, focuses on the first year of Sirleaf’s presidency and seeks to address these questions. Allowed behind the scenes with Sirleaf we are given a glimpse into her personal life through interviews with Sirleaf and her sister, Jenny Bernard. We also get a glimpse into Sirleaf’s leadership of the struggling government in cabinet meetings that include other iron ladies. Facing the legacy of systemic corruption, 90% unemployment, astronomical national debt, a history of fourteen years of civil war, and continued supporters of the exiled Charles Taylor, Sirleaf calmly steps into the seat of power and appoints several women to her cabinet. Those featured in the film are the Beatrice Munah Sieh, Chief of Police; Antoinette Sayeh, Minister of Finance; and Olumbanke King-Akerele, Minister of Commerce.

Over the course of 2006 these Iron Ladies address the issues of a new democracy in a post conflict country within Liberia and in relationship to the international community. Co-director and narrator, Siatta Scott Johnson, steps out of her role as a journalist and documents her struggles with property rights. Out of frustration, at one point she turns to the camera, and says, “The men of this country have failed us.” Though men are not universally portrayed as the cause of the problems in Liberia, the Iron Ladies are portrayed as tough, ethical, and skilled at meeting the challenges facing a country in transition. They are also depicted as strong voices against war and supporters of free election and democracy.

This film will be of interest to students of international studies, political science and history, especially those interested in post conflict government and social issues related to reparation following civil war. Students of gender studies and women’s studies will be interested in Sirleaf as a Harvard educated grandmother in traditional dress with a commitment to peaceful negotiation, discussion, transparency and inclusively.

For additional information, see the January 2008 interview with Siatta Scott Johnson, co-director of the film, on the PBS Independent Lens website for the film. In several short clips she gives an update on Sirleaf’s popularity and progress on issues raised in the initial documentary. The website gives additional history on Liberia and biographical information about Sirleaf, including this quote from the “Iron Lady.”

“Africa is going through a transition; Liberia is going through a transition. There will be charges and counter-charges. That’s what an environment of democracy and freedom does—it enables people to speak out.”
—President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The Iron Lady’s government appears to exemplify this environment.