Film Festival Profiles: Iron Ladies of Liberia

Iron Ladies of Liberia Directors: Daniel Junge and Siatta Scott-Johnson

When Denver-based documentary director Daniel Junge and producer Henry Ansbacher first contacted newly elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (who, among other degrees, received a masters in economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1970), they were told their documentary crew could have two weeks of access. Two weeks to make a documentary film is nothing, but Junge and Ansbacher -- the principals of the Denver documentary film company Just Media -- saw their shot to tell the story of the first elected female head of state in Africa, and they took it. Days before they left, Junge discovered the Jonathan Stack film Liberia: An Uncivil War, and contacted Stack to see if he’d be interested in helping out with the project. Stack agreed to come on board as co-producer of the film and put the filmmakers in touch with Liberian journalist Siatta Scott-Johnson, who would end up co-directing the film with Junge.

Once in Liberia, the filmmakers were able to turn two weeks of access into fifteen weeks of shooting during five trips to Liberia over the course of a year. With this unprecedented access to the leader of a nation at a crossroads, Junge and company were able to pique the interests of the PBS series Independent Lens and producers at the BBC. The increased interest and financial backing enabled Just Media to produce a truly unique and compelling feature length look at the birth of a tenuous democracy in a war-torn country. Truncated, hour-long versions of Iron Ladies of Liberia will screen in March on Independent Lens and around the world soon as part of the Why Democracy? documentary series, of which the BBC is a principle member, but you can see what Junge feels is the most complete version of the documentary at the Starz Denver Film Festival.

While the story of the making of this film is compelling enough, it pales in comparison to the travails of President Johnson-Sirleaf as she deftly steers her country through the troubled waters of her first year in office. Facing economic crisis, corrupt political opposition and civil war soldiers rioting in the streets of the capitol, Johnson-Sirleaf's story is a profile in the democratic possibilities of not only Liberia, but that of an entire continent rife with horrific conflict. -- Sean Cronin

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Sean Cronin