When producer Henry Ansbacher and I look back on how, weeks before her inauguration, we learned we might have access to the first days of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s term in office as Liberia’s president, it’s funny to think how, at the time, we thought this might make for an interesting short film. One year and 500 taped hours later, Iron Ladies of Liberia proved to be more than just an interesting short film.
This indeed was appetizing subject matter for a filmmaker — a chance not only to see the inner workings of government at the highest level, but also an opportunity to explore the resonant subjects of female leadership, post-conflict re-development and democracy in the developing world. Perhaps most importantly, it offered an opportunity to witness — as our other producer Jonathan Stack calls it — “the most unabashedly positive story to come out of Africa since Nelson Mandela.” This comes from a producer whose last experience in Liberia was dodging bullets during the country’s brutal civil war.
The door cracked open for us to film the president’s inauguration for two weeks, and we firmly wedged our foot in that door, ultimately filming for a year with our Liberian crew. Often filming Iron Ladies of Liberia proved to be an exercise in self-discipline. The task of simply keeping the camera steady and in focus, while remaining neutral to the significance of what we were shooting, was, to say the least, difficult. Not only were we privy to the inner workings of government at a level allowed to few in film history, and witnessing history being made by Africa’s first female president, we were also fortunate to be present at critical and possibly history-changing moments in President Sirleaf’s first dramatic year. So it was with difficulty that we had to anesthetize ourselves to these realizations just to keep the camera in focus.
As much as this proved a difficult task for our non-Liberian crew, for our Liberian co-director Siatta Johnson it was an even greater challenge. Here is a woman who, like most Liberians, lost everything during the country’s wars. Now, in Sirleaf’s presidency, she sees her first prospect for a “normal” life (a very low bar, measured by Western standards). “I’m not a partisan,” she often said, but we would catch her smiling when filming the president.
Like the best of politicians, President Sirleaf is adept at constantly reacting to her environment, and yet she was able to disregard our presence, even at moments in which her leadership may have appeared fragile. While, for the most part, she ignored our cameras (a blessing for filmmakers), producer Jonathan Stack told me that there would come a time when the president would give us “a conspiratorial look”—when she would be willing not only to let us film, but also bring us into her process. “Then,” Jonathan said, “then we’ll know we’ve got a film.”
That moment came towards the end of production, in a heated conversation between the president and representatives of the World Bank regarding Liberia’s debt relief. At a particularly rancorous moment the president looked my way. It was at a moment like this when typically we would be invited to leave the meeting. But this look was different. This look was to make sure we were rolling — a conspiratorial look — before she leveled into the men.
Indeed, we knew then we had a film.
Personally I’m honored to have been a witness and, hopefully, to have appropriately documented this critical chapter in African history, thus helping to open a wider dialogue on the themes mentioned above. While it’s easy to become a cheerleader for Ellen as she confronts her Herculean tasks, I don’t want the film to be agitprop for her nor against the dominant model in African politics, but rather for viewers to appreciate the complexity of the situation, including our complicity as Westerners. That viewers ask their own questions, not the least of which would be: Are women intrinsically better leaders than men? I have my answer to that one, but I expect audiences will come up with their own.
— Daniel Junge
Henry Ansbacher, Producer
Henry Ansbacher is the founder of Just Media and has served as its executive director since 2000, producing more than 25 documentary shorts featuring social entrepreneurs, including the Emmy Award-winning series Common Good. Chiefs, a documentary about the Wyoming Indian High School basketball team, was Ansbacher’s first feature film producer credit. Since then, he has also collaborated with Daniel Junge on Reading Your Rights, We Are PHAMALy, and a number of other broadcast documentaries. Ansbacher received his B.A. from Colorado College and his M.A. in psychology from the University of Denver and has worked as a counselor in Colorado. His short films have screened in festivals in New York, Vienna, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro and Denver.
Jonathan Stack, Producer
Jonathan Stack is an Emmy Award-winning and two-time Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. In 1991 he founded the non-profit Gabriel Films and has since produced more than 75 films for nearly all of the cable channels in the U.S. and many television partners abroad. He has released several films theatrically and shown his work at many major festivals. Stack’s career highlights include producing the International Emmy for Arts Documentary-winning Damned in the U.S.A. (1991), the Golden Eagle Award winner Harlem Diary: Nine Voices of Resilience (1994), the two-time Emmy winner Final Judgment: The Execution of Antonio James (1996), the 1998 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner The Farm, and the Oscar-nominated The Wildest Show in the South (2000). Stack’s Liberia: An Uncivil War won Special Jury Mention at the 2004 AFI/Silverdocs Festival and the Special Jury Prize at the 2004 IDFA film festival.
Daniel Junge, Director
Named by Filmmaker magazine as one of 25 up-and-coming filmmakers, Daniel Junge had his feature-length directorial debut with Chiefs, which aired on Independent Lens, and won best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. Junge also directed Reading Your Rights and Big Blue Bear, both of which aired on PBS, and We Are PHAMALy, which screened at the Tribeca and Hot Springs film festivals. He served as creative director for the Emmy Award-winning series Common Good, directing four of its segments. Junge received his B.A. from Colorado College and attended film school at New York University. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife, Erin. Junge is currently finishing a new feature documentary, They Killed Sister Dorothy.
Siatta Scott Johnson, Director
Siatta Scott Johnson was born in Buchanan, Liberia in 1974 and raised in rural Grand Bassa County. She fled Grand Bassa in the early 1990s with the outbreak of war and eventually settled in Monrovia, where she was living during the end of the civil war in 2003. Scott Johnson earned her B.A. in mass communications from the University of Liberia after the school re-opened following the war. She holds certificates in political reporting from the University of Liberia and in media from the Press Union of Liberia/UNMIL, and a diploma in journalism from the Liberia Institute of Journalism. She has five years of experience as a reporter and producer at DCTV, one of Liberia’s only broadcast television stations, and is a founding member of Omuahtee Africa Media. She speaks English, Liberia Dialect English and Bassa fluently and is the mother of two.