Abigail Disney – the producer of the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, graciously agreed to an interview with Mary Noble of Feminenza International and Eileen McGowan of Feminenza North America. This documentary is about a group of courageous and visionary Liberian women who came together to end a bloody civil war and bring peace to their shattered country. Their mission is a compelling and inspiring testimony of what can happen when women unite together under a purpose greater than themselves, and persevere – no matter how difficult or challenging – to not give up until the mission is accomplished. A courageous woman named Leymah Gbowee was the leader who mobilized these women in Liberia. Leymah is recently one of three women who received the Noble Peace Prize in October, 2011 for her peace-making campaigns in Liberia and other African communities.
Feminenza has shown this documentary in its Forgiveness and Reconciliation Training Program for grassroots women in Kenya and they were incredibly inspired! After having seen this documentary here in America, and becoming so inspired by its far-reaching effects and implications, Eileen contacted the producer, Abigail Disney, to ask if Feminenza could have an interview, and Abigail whole-heartedly agreed. We are grateful for having had the opportunity to interview Abigail Disney and since then, a 5-part PBS series titled ‘Women, War & Peace’ was released with Abigail as co-producer. This series helps to expand the stories of women’s roles in times of war and highlights the growing consciousness and need to place women at the center of an urgent dialogue about peace and stepping down conflict.
Eileen: One of the first questions I have is to do with how did you end up doing documentaries for women in conflict / warring zones? In other words, what is the story that you tell yourself about how you got into all of this?
Abigail: It’s kind of strange, because a million years ago when I was in graduate school, writing on American literature, I was writing about war novels and I kept asking myself “Why am I writing about this? This has nothing to do with my life.” But I was very interested in men and masculinity as a social construct and I was very interested in the way they talked to one other about it, and a war novel is something a bit like a locker room conversation. It is an opportunity for men to talk about how they perceive the meaning of their life with each other. So I did a lot of work on that and it was fascinating to me. I then went on my merry way and went on to do a lot of work in the community that is interested in low-income women around New York City and then globally. So that feels like a strange jump from one thing to another. I kind of left that work on my dissertation way back in my mind and forgot about it. But then I found myself in Liberia. So all this work with grassroots communities led me to Liberia and I heard the story that is the center of Pray the Devil Back to Hell. And I have to say that I came home from that trip a little bit angry, frankly, that I didn’t already know the story, because I had heard stories like this about women in grassroots communities and it is never known what women do. We never know, and we never remember, and we never credit or give authority to these stories, so it made me sort of angry. But also it just felt to me like here was this moment where I had been uniquely placed on the planet and I had access, and the ability, and I knew this story, and I knew the value that it would have for people. It was almost impossible for me not to make the documentary.
I joined with a really wonderful filmmaker friend named Gini Reticker. I was smart enough to know that as a first time filmmaker I shouldn’t try to do it myself. It was too important a story for me to mess up. So I brought in a fantastic director, Gini Reticker, and we made the film. Just as we were finishing the film we connected with another filmmaker named Pamela Hogan, who was at the time at WNET making films for Wide Angle and in the course of our conversation we started talking about this dearth of information about women and war. So all this stuff that I had been thinking about and talking about with war novels came rushing back. Because the fact is these landscapes are strangely lacking in women. Even though women are sort of implied in the language about war. There is house-to-house fighting. There is raping and pillaging. They are implied in there and there are certain places where they are central to the narrative but for the most part they have been written out of the war and war comes to be seen as this purely male pursuit and the women are sort of irrelevant to the pursuit no matter how they figure into it. So we started talking about what if we looked at war through a woman’s eyes. How would it change? How would it be good for it? And that is when we came to the conclusion that there is this need for a series that really just took the hammer out of the hands of the male who was generally at the center of any war narrative, whether it’s a press report or a documentary or a fiction film or a novel. If we took the central defining eye of that narrative and gave it to a woman instead, how would it look? That is essentially the proposition that we are approaching the whole series with. And it’s true… The hypothesis holds true that everything changes. Every calculation, every consideration, every definition – is altered by just simply redefining the central consciousness from which we view the landscape of war.
Eileen: So will you in the upcoming series of Women, War & Peace, speak about the differences in how men and women view war, because I can see that it would be very different?
Abigail: Yes. What we have had is thousands of years of how men view war but what we need is a corrective dose – however small – of the other. So that is essentially what the proposition is. Okay, we know from Homer, through Tennyson, through Hemingway, through Mailer – we know how men view war. And it has really not changed almost at all, in thousands of years. What we need is a corrective dose of what it looks like to hold your family together; to find the food; to find the water; to protect your children; to deal with the trauma and the rape and the loss; and to be persistently overlooked as a factor, even though you are carrying most of the burden. That is really important.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell affected people the way it did, in part, because we chose to make a verite film. A story that was narrative driven, character driven. It wasn’t a series of facts that we rattled off. We weren’t lecturing anyone. We let the story surface the politics and the ideas, rather than the other way around. So we went looking for other character driven stories in other settings that would draw out the themes that we were pulling out of our research. So, for instance, sexual violence, of course, is a theme that is persistent throughout the ages in wartime. Is it inevitable? Is it even understandable? Is it just the way things are? What happens when women say “basta”, you know what, I don’t consider this to be inevitable and I think that people should be held accountable.
So we have a story set in Bosnia and we followed some women who testified at the ICTY, which changed international law forever. Has it solved every problem? No, it hasn’t. But has it changed the way we have decided to look at conflict and rape? Yes, absolutely it has. In Colombia we are following women who are working and being threatened every day by paramilitaries who are trying to hold onto the land so we are not telling people the displacement story but we are telling what it is that is driving people off their land and what it looks like to try and hold onto it. And what the pressures are on land and why that is important and has very much to do with families and people and populations. And then in Afghanistan we tell the story of three different women who are actively trying to be factors in the peace process. They are not simply going to be a bargaining chip between the Taliban and the Americans and the government in Kabul, which is essentially what will happen if they sit quietly by. They will be bargained away. They just won’t sit quietly by and do that so there is a group called the Afghan Women’s Network and they are all part of it. They are thinking and strategizing and being active around trying to make sure that their voices are heard and we kind of take apart what are all the forces that are barriers. Who is trying to help them and why? It’s a really interesting film. And then Liberia is really about Pray the Devil Back to Hell and the role women can play in building peace.
And then the fifth hour is more like an overview hour. It’s not a narrative, it’s more like an essay film. It puts together this question of why are we looking at this now? The fact is, it has always been true that we have ignored women in wartime. Why are they more important now than they have ever been? What are some of the forces that have shifted since the end of the cold war? Globalization? The climate change? The flooding of the market place with tons and tons of small arms? International politics? All of these things have kind of come together to turn up the heat on civilian women – more than ever before. And, women have really risen in international communities and into positions where maybe potentially something genuinely different can occur in terms of pulling them into peace processes and taking them more seriously as factors in their community. So we really are at a historic pivot point in terms of women and war and it’s important to understand that.
Mary: If I could come in and ask you something Abigail. It’s very interesting to get the whole run that you have just done. What we are doing in Kenya at the moment… We have been running a one-year pilot with training 21 women as Forgiveness and Reconciliation Counselors in conflict areas. These are all women who are fairly grassroots. They range from counselors, teachers, nurses, farmers, but they all share in common a great desire to help their communities heal after the post-election violence that took place in 2008. We met them and spent a year going around identifying who they were, getting in touch with organizations, finding women who would be appropriate for the training. We did get funding from UN WOMEN, on the basis of supporting UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which is about promoting local women in peace building. One of the challenges that we faced in the beginning with them was that they perceived, at first, that nothing would change until the men changed. When we asked them what did they see to be their challenges they would say that the men have the power; the men make the decisions; and so if the men don’t change there is nothing that we can do. So we kept coming in at the beginning with, “Well, have you considered that if you change, things around you are going to change.” And that message has slowly been able to come across to these women. Showing them your film had an incredible impact on them. They were so unbelievably inspired by it, but they face issues like “It’s inappropriate for women to address men in public meetings.” In a lot of their communities it is just not something that is done – that a women will stand up and address elders or chiefs or whatever. So they have had to overcome a lot of issues in themselves and I think they are now beginning to get that confidence, but I wondered if that is something that you have come across… For women to actually get to that place to start to see that if they start to change themselves, the men actually do start to… I’ve seen men, in a remarkable way, look at them and say, “Wow, these women really do mean business.” I’ve seen something start to melt in the men – a bit like the Berlin wall, you know, when you thought it was impossible one day, and then the next day you’ve got chiefs coming up and asking “When are you going to start teaching us about forgiveness?”
Abigail: I think that intimidating structures often are weaker than they appear to be, and men in particular, are not necessarily working in the kind of unanimity, around aggression and violence, as we think they are. There are a lot of men who are looking for a way out. But the way in which they are hard upon each other about aggression and masculinity is almost worse than the way in which they are hard upon women.
I had an interview, off camera, with one of the warlords and I said to him “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand how one woman threatening to strip naked could cause such commotion.” He looked at me like I was kind of stupid and he said, “Because they were our mothers. And you have to ask yourself what would drive your mother to give away her last shred of dignity voluntarily.” He said, in that moment, there wasn’t one man there in that room, no matter what he had done during the conflict, that didn’t ask himself, “What did I do to bring us to this place?”
Talk about a game changer and a paradigm shift. I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of this lurking presence of the mother’s voice in the heart of every man. These systems are usually built around one central guy – a warlord, or a Charles Taylor, or somebody like that, who is charismatic and usually brilliant and something of a sociopath and so he doesn’t have that mother inhabiting him. He doesn’t have that. But he also can’t do it on his own. He needs these expanding, concentric circles around him of men who help him institute the system. The further out in those expanding, concentric circles you get from a sociopath, the more you get a normal, regular guy. And if you can get to those guys, if you can find that place where they remember who they are and what they were put on this planet to do, then those systems change. It’s like in Egypt when Mubarak sent the soldiers into the square to incite the protesters to violence and they didn’t respond with violence. That day more soldiers crossed over to the protesters side than at any other time because the act of taking the violence and responding with non-violence so moved the soldiers that the man in them overrode the soldier – and that is the heart and soul of non-violent resistance. This is what Martin Luther King depended upon. This is what Gandhi depended upon. It’s finding the human being and re-asserting the humanity inside of it all. So if you can make them remember the human that they are inside of these systems, then suddenly inside of the system you have an ally. And I think that is the trick. One of the things that Leymah understood was that she would lose that moral authority if she didn’t stay totally above the politics. A lot of these women, particularly in the Ivory Coast where women were shot… The mistake that they make, although I don’t blame them for what happened… But the mistake that they made was to choose a side. And then to advocate for that side. What the women in Liberia did was to say, “First, we are going to stop shooting each other. And then we are going to talk.” So it’s that position they staked out, above the politics, that caused everyone on all sides to step away from their positions long enough to break the frozen dynamic of what was happening. And that is the position that women can take because they are not invested in the systems that bring people to these points. They don’t have their hands as dirty. They don’t have the history that men have, and so when they speak from above politics they can be heard.
Mary: That is brilliant! The second question that we had on the list of questions was that when you watch Pray the Devil Back to Hell, you are left with a very strong feeling that there are lessons to be learnt for all of us, especially those working in peace work, and so I had wanted to ask what were the lessons for you, but in a way, I think you just articulated one of them – about the importance of staying above the politics as being absolutely crucial.
Abigail: I feel like the film is in some ways a bit of a primer on non-violence. Because we made the decision to make a verite story, we didn’t step out of the narrative very often to say, “Here is a moment you might want to notice, that they didn’t make the decision this way…” Sometimes I want to almost do like a pop-up version of the film, because how strategic they were and how smart they were is really something that constantly amazes me. A lot of people pick up on it, but not everybody does. When we take the film out to, for instance, the Bosnian women or the women in Sudan, they see that, and invariably there will be a very strategic and pragmatic discussion about activism in general, and what works and what doesn’t. Which is why I wanted to go on and make these other four films, because I can see now how triggering this is – how unlocking it is of all sorts of capacity and thinking that I think have been latent in those groups.
So if you could maybe get women together once a week for five weeks or once a month for five months and kind of prompt and promote those kinds of discussions on their own terms, and in their own vocabulary, then you would start to get genuinely indigenous women’s movements with indigenous inherent knowledge that is rooted in the local context, and then you would start to have women stepping up and imagining their own answers from their own framework and having their own context. That is my dream!
Eileen: I think that is a great dream to have – and with what was said earlier about these women being able to rise above the politics – that also made me wish that you could do a kind of pop-up version…. When you there with these women, and in spending time with them, and in spending time with Leymah, what did you see to be their core beliefs, or their core fundamentals? What do you think drove them – because obviously they were able to come from a different place that allowed them to rise above the politics of the situation and not take sides. So if you were to try to define those beliefs and fundamentals in them – what would you say?
Abigail: I think that first of all, they had tried things from the past that had failed. This was a country that had been in and out of civil war for a really long time. And what you don’t see in the film, unfortunately, just because there wasn’t the time or space, was all the false starts and the failed attempts. Because I think that those are really important and they should be seen not as failures, but as the building blocks of success. I do think that successful movements don’t come from nowhere and they don’t happen out of the blue. They are built upon experience. They had a lot of experience and they had a lot of elder women, but what was different about the elder women in this case was that they were willing to step aside and encourage young leadership. Generally in these places the stakes are so low and the well being of these women that are elder… There is nowhere for them to go with their knowledge. There is no university for them to be a professor or a government appointed. So they are usually reluctant to move out of these positions of leadership and let young people take over. But in this case the elder women really saw in Leymah an incredible capacity for her to get people to follow her charisma and brilliance and so what they did was to allow her to step up and take leadership. So that is one thing that is different about this movement is that they had an exceptional leader – just an exceptional person. She was really easy to follow and she instilled confidence in everyone, no matter how scared she was feeling herself. So they really lucked out in having somebody with such prodigious, natural ability.
I think the Liberian women have a lot of the problematic characteristics that women in these contexts often have because if you have been in civil war for decades, of course you don’t trust anyone around you and if you don’t trust anyone around you, how do you build a movement? There is a lot of in-fighting, territoriality, jealousy – all of this is happening among the Liberian women, still to this day, but I think in this case they were able to rise above all of that stuff, partly because they had a great leader, and partly because the war was right on their doorstep. They just had nowhere to go. It was either keep your head down and hope you don’t die – or fight. Leymah describes going in and out of the Ivory Coast, for years, trying to work with the women in Abidjan and they just weren’t interested. They just didn’t feel as worried and it didn’t feel as immediate and she just couldn’t get them to rise.
Mary: Abby, if you look at women in the west, and specifically women in the USA, what would you say they have to learn from what you have learned from working with these women in Liberia and other places you have been to like Afghanistan? Are there lessons for us women in the western world that you could articulate?
Abigail: (Laughter) I’m sure I know what you think is the answer to that – a big yes. Especially because American women had our big suffrage movement and we like to think we invented feminism here. So there is an inclination not to know that there are a lot of feisty, amazing, brilliant women out there who have got a lot to tell us. That is one of the reasons I love going around the United States with Leymah because every audience, men and women, feel so humbled when they start to understand how much they don’t know and how much they need to listen. It’s the big missing piece, not just in Americans, but in the developing world, particularly those highly placed in the international community who think it is their job to go out and save everyone and they end up mucking things up more often than not. I think that the first thing is to approach any conflict from a listening posture and I think that is what the women in Liberia did and that is something that we need to learn how to do, which is to shut up and listen for a change and to know more about a situation before we go in with an answer. They really did a brilliant job of going to the UN after the UN had mucked up the weapons trade-in and say to them, “Look, the way you did this in Bosnia worked in Bosnia but it’s not going to work the same way here in Liberia. Let us tell you about how to work with indigenous languages and traditional beliefs and how to talk to people and so forth.” That was really important.
I think also the power of local is what the women in Liberia do better than anything. They have almost like a little cell system that they use. They don’t try to centralize too much. I think that is one of the failures in global north feminism is to hope that there is one kind of charismatic leader or one organization or one campaign or one call to action that is going to fix everything. I think that actually there is no silver bullet but a million silver darts. We need to let all the flowers bloom because they tend to come from the indigenous soil. We haven’t really strengthened local movements in the global north and we need to give more credit to them and we need to understand that they are really where the fundamental change is going to come from and I think that is something the Liberians did really well.
Eileen: There is a question I would love to ask you, because as we work in the forgiveness domain in Feminenza, we have seen a lot of documentaries from around the world, and this particular one was so inspiring because it showed the power of women uniting and affecting great change. There was something Leymah said that really struck me, and you probably know this one by heart, but it was when Leymah said, “These women had seen the worst of the war, something I had not seen. And they still had that vibrancy for life. And just being able to help them, to sit and hold their hands and to hug their kids, and looking at people who have lost everything and still having hope. I think that was where I got baptized into the women’s movement.” That was a very moving moment for me and I wanted to ask you what were some of the things, from your own experiences there, that you were deeply moved by?
Abigail: It’s interesting because Leymah and I have come to be very close and she really has been such a gift in my life on a personal level. And that line also really resonated for me and I realized that as different as Leymah and I are in terms of where we come from with our life experiences – I mean it doesn’t get more different – I feel like she is my long lost sister. We are so similar in certain kinds of ways and that is one of them. The way she found her way to feminism is almost the same way that I found my way to feminism. I held it a bit at arm’s length because it felt to me like a bunch of people who were just complaining all the time. And then I found my way to this breakfast with the New York Women’s Foundation and I sat there in awe of women who had incredibly difficult lives, and incredibly terrible burdens, who were rising to it and finding answers and they were a miracle. And that was exactly how I got baptized into the feminist movement. Because it was a feminism that was about “Yes”. It was about what we stood for and what we had in us. It changed my life forever. So I always thought that was interesting that in a way, Leymah and I both arrived, almost in the same way to this kind of work, even coming from such different places.
Mary: What do you find are your challenges – I’m sure you have many – but in terms of what you are currently doing with Women, War & Peace. What would you say, at the moment, are your main challenges in that?
Abigail: In terms of doing media around women, there are still all the gatekeepers out there, the people who program networks and shoot for film festivals and whatever else, such as funders who operate on old assumptions that nobody cares about women and Americans won’t watch films about people who have accents and so forth. But when I take Pray the Devil Back to Hell to college campuses I can feel this unbelievable excitement in young people, particularly around women’s issues, and it’s so interesting. I’ve shown the film at all boy’s high schools and you wouldn’t believe the amazing energy in the room. I know there is an audience for this and I know there is an incredible enthusiasm for this. I know that the gatekeepers and the programmers and the marketing people just don’t know, or understand, or don’t care, or maybe they are just lazy. I’m not sure – how to find those audiences and bring them there and keep them there. My problem is not the audience so much but everything in between my audience and me. So I wish I had an imaginative, brilliant funder who would be inspired to give me two million dollars for an advertising budget to really go out and make sure I reach everybody. But I’m not going to have that. Or, I wish I didn’t have to waste my energy on raising the four and a half million dollars to make all these films because I would have preferred to take that time and spend time thinking through strategy or thinking through all those things. The primary obstacle is the lack of imagination among people with power with money and access to media. Because they haven’t caught up to the world. The world has moved past them and they are not with it. It only makes me more militant about getting an audience because I want to surprise them. I want to shock them. Because if I can deliver a big enough audience to this broadcast they will have no choice but to say, “Oh, look at that, maybe women are out for women and they are very loyal and enthusiastic audiences and maybe we should do more of this.” I figure that I did not machete my way into the forest to let it grow back behind me. I’m still raising money and I will probably have to keep raising money for a while. I would so love not to be raising money and asking for favors from people anymore. I hate that. But that is the only thing that is so hard. People always say to me, “How do you do this work? It seems so depressing.” I don’t find it depressing at all. Yes, I get depressed when I think about Afghanistan but then I think about these women for who they are and I keep telling people that we are about the good news. And the good news isn’t what happened in Afghanistan. The good news is who these women are and what they are capable of and who they can make you feel like you can be. I inhabit every day with those women so I am never depressed because I know the world is full of these kind of people. Mary, I’m sure you have the same kind of feeling I have because of the women you work with in Kenya.
Mary: Oh yes, completely. I’m just sitting here grinning from ear to ear because I so love the women I am working with. They are so amazing.
Abigail: Did you know Dekha, by any chance?
Mary: Yes, I did know Dekha. She actually was very instrumental… I met her after the post election violence in 2008 and she helped to put me in touch with a lot of the women that I’m now working with so I was very sad to hear about what happened. There was a woman in the northeast of Kenya, named Hubbie Hussein, who knew her and I wrote to her and she wrote back and said, “Yes, we all loved her, but Allah loved her more.” I thought that is a nice way to think about it.
Abigail: Yes, and it’s probably true too. She was amazing and I had promised her that I would be coming to Kenya after the broadcast with the films and my heart was so broken.
Mary: Abby, I need to go because I have another call to be on, but if ever you do come to Kenya, please let us know. We can sit and have a cup of tea and I can introduce you to some people there. That would be brilliant. I’m going to leave you with Eileen for another few minutes, but it has been a pleasure, and thank you very much.
Abigail: Thank you Mary. Nice to meet you.
Eileen: Is there anything, at this point, that you would want to ask us, or is there anything you would want to add into this interview – something else you would want to say about the documentary, your work, women…
Abigail: I would say that because of the nature of the barriers to getting advertising out and attention for things – what I need is an army of evangelists. I need people who are willing to take this series up in their arms and represent it into the world. Tweet it, blog it, Facebook it. Just make yourselves be about delivering people to that broadcast because the better I do – the better women are going to do. I know that sounds really awful, but it’s true. We will have so much ability to do more if we can just hit this ball out of the park. I would just say please, please, be an evangelist for us. Come to womenwarandpeace.org. Help us make sure that people get a chance to see this because I really think it is going to make a big difference in the world.
Eileen: Absolutely! We can definitely do that and we have quite a few of us on your e-mailing list but we will make more of an effort to get it out there. If I could ask one more question, because in Feminenza, with the forgiveness and reconciliation work, a lot of the focus with that work has been in Kenya during this past year, but there are ladies here in Feminenza North America who are wanting to, in a way, replicate the program that has been done there – of course not exactly – but we want to do that kind of work here in this country. So we are trying to find those women, those grassroots leaders, those organizations, the places and people that would be interested. So, from your own experiences in this country, do you think forgiveness and reconciliation work could have a successful outplay in this country?
Abigail: I have been thinking about this so much. Sometimes I wonder who we think we are with the incredibly divided world that we inhabit here in this country. Who do we think we are talking about reconciliation with anybody? I think we need to fix our own front yard, so I’m so glad to hear you say that because it seems to me that the world pays for our dysfunction. I think it is so important for us. I meet people who are right-wing and they are such decent, wonderful human beings. We should stop demonizing one another and find a way to build a coherent, social, civic place.
Eileen: I feel the work is needed here in a big way. I think it could have many different expressions here with different outplays and different groupings of people. I think we are prone in this country also to stuff things under the carpet rather than look at them in a more upfront, honest and direct way.
Abigail: This is going to sound very melodramatic but you know, the ingredients are here in this country for a civil war – maybe not this year or next year or in the next decade. But what did Rwanda look like 50 years before the genocide? We need to really think about the trajectory of this thing. What if, instead of waiting for a civil war, we started doing the work of reconciliation before it happens? Let’s put into practice some of the understanding we have about the way the world works. I really believe, in fact, what we have is a very grave situation if we don’t do the work of reconciliation in this country.
Eileen: I would ask you, Abigail, if later you might have any time to put together a list of organizations that we could contact?
Abigail: Sure – just send me an e-mail.
Eileen: Great – because we are intent about this work and feel strongly that it actually works. So we are in the process of trying to get funding, trying to get it out there, and as you can imagine there are struggles with that but we are not going to give up. So anyone or any organization you know that might be able to help or steer us somewhere – that would be wonderful.
Abigail: Absolutely! Thank you so much for this.
Eileen: Thank you very much Abigail! We love the work you ladies are doing!
– Mary Noble and Eileen McGowan