In conversation with filmmaker Abigail Disney

Filmmaker Abigail E Disney’s latest project began with a simple question, “What if you looked at war as though women mattered?”  Disney’s answer to that question is Women, War & Peace, a bold five-part PBS miniseries that highlights the stories of women in conflict zones from Bosnia to Liberia, and Columbia to Afghanistan.  By inserting a female face, voice, and perspective into the dialogue about conflict and security, Women, War & Peace challenges the notion that these issues are only men’s domain.


It all began at Stanford

Women, War & Peace is the newest chapter in Disney’s longstanding personal and intellectual interest in the gendered experience at war – an interest that began for her at Stanford University.

In the early 1980s, Disney came to Stanford to pursue a masters degree in English Literature.  Her time at Stanford proved to be a turning point in her life, said Disney, because “it really cemented for me that this was what I needed to do with my life…study, think, talk,…be about ideas.”

One idea that Disney was exposed to at Stanford was the importance of looking at the world through a gendered lens.  At the time, Disney said, “everybody was looking at women and talking about women…the gender seed definitely got planted [for me] at Stanford.”

Armed with this vantage point, Disney went on to pursue a Ph.D. at Columbia University.  For her thesis, she wrote about American war novels, finding that cultural representations of war are always told from a male point of view.  When war is written about or talked about, said Disney, it’s as if “it is a locker room conversation…a conversation by, for, and about men…with the presumption that nobody female is listening.”

After completing her graduate studies, Disney maintained a focus on women’s issues by playing a key role in several social and political organizations for over 20 years.

The accidental filmmaker

As the granddaughter of Roy Disney and grandniece of Walt Disney, Abigail Disney steered clear of the family business for most of her life.  However, a trip to Liberia in 2006 to show support for Africa’s first woman head of state, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, provided Disney with a reason to become a filmmaker.  While there, she heard the remarkable story of how a small group of Liberian women were able to stop a civil war through nonviolent action.  “It was horrifying to me that I had never heard of these women and knew that it was going to be forgotten. Knowing something creates a debt in you—an obligation. I was in a position to make sure their story was honored.”

Disney’s desire to tell these women’s story culminated in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which she produced with Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, Gini Reticker. Pray the Devil Back to Hell won Best Documentary at its premiere at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival and has gone on to win nearly 20 awards and honors. Disney worked with Reticker again on Women, War & Peace, along with Pamela Hogan, a producer/writer at the forefront of making PBS’s Emmy-winning, international documentary series WIDE ANGLE, a standard setter in the coverage of global women’s issues. Together, this team of seasoned film veterans took on the challenge of producing this five-part series.

Coming full circle

With the launch of her new PBS miniseries, Women, War & Peace, several parts of Abigail Disney’s life come full circle.

The miniseries marks a return for Disney to her interest in the gendered dynamics of war.  In Women, War & Peace, Disney upends the usual way war is discussed by placing women at the forefront of the story.  “Every narrative has a central eye…an eyeball…through which all this narrative is filtered.  And the eyeball in the war narrative has never, not been male.  It has always been like you sewed a camera into John Wayne’s green beret.”

What Disney wanted to do instead was to see what war would look like through women’s eyes.  “What would happen,” Disney asked, if you “were…to sew the camera into a sari or a headscarf [of] a woman?  How would it look different?  How would the vocabulary change, the ethics change?  How would the cost-benefit analysis look?  What shifts?  Because it’s a small thing to shift the central eye, but it can have radical consequences.  And that’s essentially why I’ve taken this on.”


Women, War & Peace - I Came to Testify

By looking at war through women’s point of view, Women, War, & Peace illuminates what Disney calls the ignored, “second front” of war – and “that’s the fight of women’s lives,” Disney explained, “the fight to make life continue…to find a way…to thrive as a family and as a community…while enduring [the] trauma of losing loved ones, the worry…of watching their sons go off and become not just victims but also monsters.”

Understanding women’s experience of war is all the more important because of the changing nature of armed conflict, added Disney.  Gone are the days when war involved nation states with large armies.  Today’s conflicts are fought by informal groups – gangs, warlords, and insurgents.  The post-Cold War proliferation of small arms has altered the landscape of war, with women becoming the main targets and bearing unprecedented losses.

Women pay the highest price for the casualization of war.  Yet, they are simultaneously emerging as the group that can best foster peace and forge new international law governing conflict.  “The answer to an insurgency,” said Disney, “is not to go back to the drawing board for a bigger and better hammer.  The answer is resolution of conflict…building sustainable peace.  And the heart and soul of that is women.”

Featuring celebrity narrators Matt DamonTilda SwintonGeena Davis, and Alfre WoodardWomen, War & Peace, is the most comprehensive global media initiative ever mounted on the experience of women in armed conflict and peace building efforts.  Co-produced by THIRTEEN and Fork Films, the series will bring its groundbreaking message to a global audience through numerous channels such as primetime television, radio, internet, and worldwide community screenings.  The series will be accompanied by and educational and outreach initiative designed to bring international accountability to issues of women and security.

Returning to Stanford

Given that Disney’s gender consciousness was piqued at Stanford, it is fitting that she will be returning here to launch Women, War, & Peace, the day after the series airs its inaugural program.  On October 12th 2011 at 7pm, in conversation with Debra Satz, Director of the Center for Ethics and Society at Stanford, and philanthropist Anne Firth Murray, Disney will discuss the creation of Women, War & Peace and talk about why she is committed to raising awareness about the “second front” of war.

As part of a special series of launch events, Disney chose to come to Stanford to kick off the series because of Stanford’s commitment to global problems that require global solutions.  Moreover, it is a place where she can share her message with the next generation.  Part of the Ethics and War Series, Disney’s talk is co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the Center for Ethics in Society, the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and the Social Entrepreneurship Program of the Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of the Law.

Importantly, the campus will continue the discussion as student groups lead Talk Backs on the final four segments of the series. Stanford is pleased to welcome Disney for a rich multi-generational conversation on Women, War & Peace.


Originally Published in Gender News, a publication of The Clayman Institute for Gender Research on Monday, September 19, 2011 - 7:35am