When we first see Joshua Milton Blahyi in The Redemption of General Butt Naked, the evangelical pastor is singing while getting dressed to deliver a joyous sermon to his flock. That introduction makes it all the more shocking to learn, a few minutes later, that during the Liberian First Civil War that began in 1989, Blahyi was a bloodthirsty general who ordered his troops, known as the Butt Naked Battalion, to commit unspeakable acts of murder, rape and physical torture.Blahyi’s men, the most feared of all paramilitary groups, earned their name for running around nude – a sign to let cowering civilians know they were about to experience the worst any civil war has to offer. Blahyi, who liked to recruit children into his army, give them weapons and cut them loose upon the world, committed so many crimes against humanity that in a just world, he would have been of the 250,000 people who died in the bloody conflict by the time it ended in 2003. But in October of 1996, Blahyi put down his gun and disappeared from the front lines, only to re-emerge as a pastor preaching the non-violent word of God. The Redemption of Butt Naked, which was filmed over the course of several years by Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion, presents a remarkably candid and up-close look at this polarizing, incredibly complex man. At the height of his power during the war, Blahyi was so ruthless that he pumped two bullets into the legs of his loyal bodyguard for a minor transgression, then locked him inside a bathroom for a week. By the time the young man received medical attention, his legs had to be amputated. He is one of the people Blahyi seeks out over the course of the film to ask for forgiveness: Another is a young man whose entire family was wiped out by the general’s army, and a third is a mother whose daughter was blinded and husband killed by Blahyi himself. In 2008, when the Liberian government organized a Truth & Reconciliation Commission designed to dole out proper punishment for atrocities committed during the war, Blahyi voluntarily testified (the filmmaker’s cameras capture his appearance before the tribunal) and admitted to being responsible for at least 20,000 deaths. Why did Blahyi attend his deposition on his own free will? “Because my faith told me that the truth shall set you free,” he tells the flabbergasted government officials. His honesty, along with his born-again identity as a man of God years before the war ended, might have been responsible for the amnesty he was granted. But that amnesty did not extend to Blahyi’s survivors: He starts receiving so many death threats he flees Liberia to hide out at a refugee camp in Ghana, something that does not sit well with his wife and children, who feel abandoned. “The more I look at my past life, the more it feels like a dream,” Blahyi says. Moments like that one make you struggle with your own impressions of the man, who seems utterly genuine and honest in some scenes, self-serving and disingenuous in others. No matter how much gospel he preaches, Blahyi can’t quite dispel the violence in his eyes – when you look at him, you know you are looking at a man who once committed unspeakable acts against his fellow men. Whether or not Blahyi will ever be able to find personal peace is a question the movie leaves open: By film’s end, he’s still searching for it.
Producers-directors: Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion.
Running time: 84 minutes. Nudity, brief images of war time atrocities. In heavily accented English with English subtitles. Plays at 9:30 p.m. Monday at Regal South Beach.