Pull Focus: Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion

Nick Ray and Katie Bieze

Eric Strauss has been creating documentary films for more than a decade, shooting, writing and producing for broadcasters such as National Geographic, The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, and A&E. For National Geographic Explorer, Eric directed, shot and produced Heroin Crisis, about the global trail of Afghan heroin, as well as Iraq’s Guns for Hire, a profile of the private security industry in Iraq. Eric also directed and produced for Hard Time, an Emmy-nominated prison series that premiered on the National Geographic Channel in March 2009. The Redemption of General Butt Naked is his first feature film.

Daniele Anastasion has worked regularly on documentaries for National Geographic, including the Emmy-nominated Inside the Body Trade. She directed and produced KKK: Inside American Terror for The National Geographic Channel and has also produced and shot for Frontline/WORLD. She also produced for Hard Time, an Emmy-nominated prison series for National Geographic that provides a gripping yearlong view into the world of incarceration. The Redemption of General Butt Naked is her first feature film.

(biography via The Redemption of General Butt Naked website)

How did you find out about Joshua Milton Blayhi?

Eric: Basically we first heard about this story through a book called “The World’s Most Dangerous Places” by Robert Young Pelton which is sort of a book about conflict zones, and there was a section about Liberia. Within that chapter was one very small paragraph about General Butt Naked. It basically said “once a warlord, now a born again preacher walking the streets of Monrovia preaching peace and reconciliation.” The paragraph itself was really just a gut punch. It really was kind of shocking, first of all the personality of General Butt Naked. Who was this guy? What was his past? Also, this transformation. Could an individual really make a sea change like that, a full 180 turn? And that was really the starting off point; the fascination really began there with that first issue. It really touched on a lot of themes and issues, of reconciliation and justice, and personal reinvention, that [Daniele] and I were really interested in exploring.

 

What made you two decide to collaborate?

Daniele: Eric and I worked together on some films for National Geographic. We had actually explored some issues similar to what we explore in this film. We had been working in prison with inmates, many of whom had committed crimes themselves. We thought it would be fascinating to explore issues of good and evil, and perpetrators of crimes, and look at this more in-depth, but in a different framework. I think Eric and I were eager to explore those issues through independent film and not as much through television, to see if we could come up with something a little bit unique and different.

 

Were there any unique challenges to doing this story as a feature versus television?

Daniele: Funding was really difficult for this film. It’s a story that is really challenging, and it’s not like there’s a social issue message that you can rally behind; it’s much more complex and it forces the viewer to really grapple with complexity. Because of that, it’s hard to make sound bytes out of it and it also makes raising money really challenging. For us, we started the film about 5 years ago, and we planned to have all of our shooting finished in about a year. We quickly realized after our first shoot in Liberia that it was going to take a lot more shooting than we had planned. The story was much more complicated and dynamic than we originally even imagined. We came back from our first shoot and we thought: “Okay, we need to raise more money to get back there.” That in itself was a challenging process. We would go back to our jobs and take television gigs and simultaneously try to raise money. Because it was so difficult it actually dragged the process out over 5 years; it took us 5 years to make the film. But I think we would also argue that as a result, the film itself is much more of an accurate, complete picture of the subject because we were able to follow it over such a long period of time, and really followed the main character and the people whose lives that he affects. And find out how that plays out over the course of multiple years.

 

Based on that experience, do you have any recommendations for a beginning filmmaker who is trying to make a film that doesn’t have that social issue message, where there’s a clear base?

Eric: Daniele and I, coming from a more commercial background, coming from commercial documentary television, I think it’s fair to say we weren’t really aware of how much funding is out there. There actually are a number of outlets where young filmmakers with great ideas can reach out and get funding for themselves. I think initially, because we came from a world in which we were given budgets and handed films or ideas and went out and made them, I think our knee-jerk reaction was to self-finance. I know that’s not an option for a lot of people, and frankly it wasn’t really an option for us, but we did the best we could. I do think no matter happens, films cost a lot of money. You read those stories sometimes where someone pulled it off on five thousand dollars or seven thousand dollars, but I sometimes feel those are misleading, because someone had access to equipment or an editing facility. Thankfully the technology is getting cheaper, making it easier for people to at least afford that side of it. Nevertheless, it is a huge endeavor, a lot of these projects.

Daniele: I know that the Tribeca Film Institute recently started a fund for this purpose; for character driven stories that may not necessarily have a social issue attached to it. I think it was out of a recognition that a lot of funding does come for social issue documentaries, and sort of recognizing a need to fund stories that are simply strong because there’s a human dynamic to it that people can relate to and learn from.

 

There are places in the film, notably when Joshua receives a threatening message after going into hiding – points where safety is clearly a concern. Could you talk about how that was addressed during production?

Eric: We never really felt unsafe around the character, around the person of Joshua Milton Blayhi, General Butt Naked. Horrified by his past actions, yes, and emotionally or intellectually uncomfortable with being in that space with a figure like that and trying to reconcile your feelings about the man you see now, who can be quite charismatic and likeable, and who he was in the past. But in terms of safety, that really wasn’t much of an obstacle until he did go before the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, and when those threats started coming out that did become an issue that we were concerned about. When we first went to see him, when he was in exile in Ghana, I felt like initially we were safe, because we were coming to Ghana; he had fled from Monrovia, so the issue of whether you start to feel uncomfortable – you’re spending time with someone who’s now a target, and that sort of puts you at risk – that wasn’t quite in the forefront of my mind because I felt we were doing the right thing being far away in Ghana. But the threats continued while he was in Ghana, and some individuals that he knew were accosted one evening. There was a break-in in a house on the refugee camp of a friend and colleague of his looking for him. At that point that did become a very serious concern. We did our best to shoot as quickly as possible during that time, and get the material we were looking for; clearly we were very committed to the story. But it definitely was an anxious time, and we did definitely look around, and maybe not go everywhere at every time that we wanted to for fear that there might be reprisals.

Daniele: When he went before the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, he actually went against the will of a number of generals and warlords who had banded together and decided to defy the TRC process and say, “we’re not going to participate in this.” So when he decided to go forward, there were a number of other perpetrators who were really angry with him and who threatened retribution. Being with him – he very much had a target on him for taking that risk – we definitely had some concern and had some talks about it amongst ourselves and also with other crew members before going over there for that shoot: “This is a concern. We are very much hanging around with somebody who is a risk” We had to make sure that everyone was comfortable with what those risks were and knew what they were in advance.

 

This is obviously a very sensitive topic for many of the characters, particularly the victims. How were you able to build a strong enough relationship that let them allow you to film?

Eric: When we first went out there to meet with Joshua, we didn’t think this was going to take five years. We knew the themes and the issues and the questions that we really wanted to address through the course of this film. We always knew what those were, and we had an idea as to how we might do it, but it really was an evolutionary process. When we first met him, he was still in Ghana at a refugee camp, before he returned in the early start of the film to Liberia. We presented ourselves to him and what we were interested in doing. Sometimes people ask “How did you get him to agree” and that sort of thing. Honestly, as you can see from the film, Joshua is not exactly media-averse; he’s not exactly a shy individual. And every Sunday he is out there giving his testimony to Liberians and to people across West Africa. He had spoken to media outlets before; nothing with the length and depth of what we were attempting to do, but there were snippets out there. Print journalism as well as some news snippets. As much as we explained to him what we wanted to do I’m not sure he even realized how long a process it would be; of course we didn’t either. Due to certain circumstances, particularly the financial circumstances, it ended up becoming a very long journey, so the relationship, the working relationship with this character, ended up evolving over time. People ask how we got such intimate scenes with him: Where he’s in hiding, with his family, and them opening up about stuff. That wasn’t the kind of material we got on the first shoot. That was definitely three or four years into the process. And again I think by that point we had built a relationship of trust as much as you could with this figure that – in a weird sort of way he was committed to getting his story out there. We weren’t making a “pro-Joshua” story by any means, and he understood where we were coming from and what we were interested in. But I do think that he began to relax and just – as did others – just let us into their lives and understand what we were out for.

Daniele: Approaching some of Joshua’s victims for this story was a really difficult process and kind of a learning experience for us as well. There’s one scene in the beginning of the film where Joshua is preaching at a rally. And he basically goes up to a woman who starts saying: “You killed my brother, I saw with my own eyes” and she’s crying and she’s very upset. This was a spontaneous moment; we had been filming Joshua preaching and this kind of arose while we were there with our cameras. And of course we asked for permission, “Is it okay that we’re here” and she gave us her permission on the spot.

After that scenario Eric and I talked and we felt a little uncomfortable with it. How are we actually going to talk to Joshua’s victims in a way that they feel safe and comfortable with us and the cameras? What we decided to do after that was to approach victims independently of Joshua on their own beforehand, let them know about our film and what we were doing, so that they could feel comfortable and really have the time to decide whether or not this was something that they wanted to participate in. So we contacted an NGO based in the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana that had been working with the Truth & Reconciliation Commission to extract testimony from people who were victimized by the war, by perpetrators in the Liberian civil war. Through this NGO we were able to identify a number of people who were victimized by General Butt Naked and his battalion. We approach them and we talk to them – some people said they weren’t willing to meet him or have anything to do with it and we completely respected it. Other people were actually very curious and said: “I’ve kind of been waiting for this moment to sort of unload what I’ve been holding onto for so many years” So that was kind of how we approached that. Now obviously that particular scenario sort of automatically – the people who were willing to participate are also probably people who are more likely to forgive a character like him, but that was sort of a give and take and that was a decision we made because we felt most comfortable doing that in terms of feeling right about how we’re dealing with people behind the scenes and making sure they’re comfortable and safe.

 

How does this film relate to your work on “Hard Time?”

Daniele: Joshua Blahyi’s story deals with forgiveness and justice on a much larger scale, just given the nature of his crimes and how many people are affected by it. In “Hard Time” we were dealing with people behind bars who had committed crimes against one or two people and who were really grappling with that. In both sets of projects, we found ourselves really trying to get to the heart of “Why did people commit these crimes” and how did they deal with the aftermath and repercussions of it.

Eric: I think “Hard Time” is very much about choices. I think in a lot of ways the story of General Butt Naked is about choices. Once an individual commits whatever acts of violence – whatever criminal behavior, what are the choices they make after that? I think in this country we all tend to think of the criminal justice narrative as sort of ending when the gavel strikes the bench and it’s guilty. “Hard Time” hopefully tries to let us into the lives of these individuals after that moment, where the narrative actually continues: What are the choices that these individuals make?

 

Have the people in the film seen the final product? What were their reactions?

Daniele: Joshua saw the final version of the film and I think, based on what he said, I think it was difficult for him to watch. I think he saw himself reflected back in the film as a human being with a number of weaknesses. Not only was he atoning for his past during the war but I think he was also sort of forced to confront his failures even in the process of reconciling for his past. I think that he really had a hard time seeing some of those failures reflected back to him.

Eric: At a larger level, Joshua seeing himself in that kind of three-dimensional way was also at the heart of what Daniele and I were always attempting to do. There are a lot of narratives, both in feature films as well as some documentaries about former perpetrators attempting to change. I can particularly think of some in Hollywood films where the past is washed away and we want to sort of just see the sea change and get on with it. Forget about that. We were really trying to show you that it’s messy. In the real world these stories are not black and white; they’re not that easy. They really truly are complicated and nuanced, and just messy. It makes for uncomfortable viewing – we both agree it made for five uncomfortable years of production. But hopefully it resonates and it really forces people to ask themselves, what we believe, are very important questions.

 

In the film we are with Joshua through a number of dramatic events, from the TRC hearing, going into hiding, all the way up to the death of Senegalese. How did these events impact the story you thought you were going to tell going in?

Daniele: The story we thought we were going to tell going in was absolutely nothing like the story that we actually got. Just by virtue of the financial struggles we had raising money for the film, we ended up spending a lot of time sitting and waiting for the finances to get back to Liberia. So we would be here in Washington, D.C. and we would hear that things were happening. We had no idea that Joshua was going to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We knew that the TRC was coming up and it was a possibility that he could testify, but I don’t think he had decided the last time we were there that he was going to go forward.

So Eric and I got a call from Joshua, and he said “I’m going before the TRC next week.” We were completely unprepared for it, so we scrambled to try to raise the money that we needed to get over there; and by raise the money I mean our personal savings. So that was something that we didn’t really know was going to be a development in the story and it really impacted the way that things played out. And then of course the fact that he received threats and went into exile afterward, I mean, that’s just something that neither of us would have anticipated but I think that it adds a layer of reality to the story. When there’s a turn like that that really reveals the struggle that somebody is going through or reveals an aspect of their character…we couldn’t’ have written something like that.

Eric: Thematically what we were attempting to address – that kernel idea was always there from the very beginning. But how events played out – those themes resonated hopefully so much more strongly because of the way that events played out, that we never could have imagined.