Abigail Disney is an American filmmaker and philanthropist who founded Fork Films and Peace Is Loud, an advocacy group. She also founded — with her husband, Pierre Hauser — the Daphne Foundation.
Since her 2009 film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which documented women’s peace activism that brought to power Liberia’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Disney’s work has strongly focused on women and peace-building.
The premiere of the second season of “Women, War & Peace,” which features stories from Bangladesh, Egypt, Northern Ireland and Palestine, is being broadcast on PBS March 25-26. The first season of the series, which Disney says has been watched by 12.5 million viewers, was broadcast in 2011.
This interview with Disney was conducted by phone on March 21, 2019, and covered a range of topics, from her filmmaking and activism to what it’s like to go through the world with the Disney name. — MARIA LUISA GAMBALE
The interview has been edited and condensed.
PB: Let’s start with how you got into the subject of women and peace talks in your work through Fork Films.
Abigail Disney: Well, I’m an unusual person in this regard! I did my dissertation on war in literature at Columbia University, and I looked at a lot of these books and thought, Where are all the women? If there’s all this raping and pillaging going on all over the place, why aren’t the women talked about, and why were women’s rights always pushed out to the margins? That was something that jumped out at me as I was writing about war novels. The way women were dangled as a rewards and offered up as inspiration. But they never seemed to be at the center of things.
So, when I went to Liberia [before making the 2009 film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”], it was because I wanted to go to a place where combat had happened recently enough that I might be able to see what some of those dynamics look like in real life. And what I saw was what I suspected. Women were there but had been brushed aside, in spite of the fact that everyone agreed that what they had done was so important and pivotal, and that there wouldn’t have been a peace without them.
There’s a lot of energy invested in — and I know this is a made-up word — invisibilizing women. And my theory for why that is, is because you can’t continue to persuade young men to go into what is certainly their own death, forward into their probable death, unless there’s a hero narrative attached to it for them. And the hero narrative cannot be sustained if women are visible.
PB: So, where is that work of changing the male-hero narrative being done? Is that part of the work of your film series, “Women, War & Peace”?
AD: This is not to be blowing our own horn, but I don’t know anyone else who’s thinking of this in this way. I’m very consciously trying to interrupt the sleepy narrative of war in the American cultural landscape. That there’s a great general, a terrible conflict, and a clear black hat and white hat involved, and that we always ride in on our steeds on the side of good and triumph. That story gets relentlessly told in school, in film, in popular culture.
I was just in San Antonio last night and I walked by the Alamo, and I thought to myself, I don’t think anyone here understands that we lost at the Alamo. And everyone’s kind of standing there with this reverent face and looking at the exhibits, and all this stuff about Davy Crockett and so forth, and there’s this gauzy unrealistic way we cast every military adventure we have. That’s how you continue a war machine, that’s how you keep a war machine running.
If you restore women, and all that they carry, to the narrative, then suddenly it becomes a different proposition. And you’re not so certain you’re the good guy next time.
The biggest barrier to building peace is the idea that building peace is ridiculous. Or that war and conflict and violence are natural to us. They’re not. The brain science says it’s not natural. History says it hasn’t always happened. Paleontology says it hasn’t always happened. This idea that we’ve absorbed that it is in our nature is simply a fiction that serves people in power who want to continue to conduct things in the way they’ve always been conducted.
PB: In your wildest dreams, what are you hoping to provoke with this newest series on women, war and peace?
AD: My wildest dreams are really wild!
I just remember having this conflict with my mother [Patricia Ann Dailey] in 2003 — she was a very conservative woman and was very supportive of Iraq — and I said, Mom, think about the collateral damage, we’re going to be bombing a city center, a highly populated area, there will be so much collateral damage. And my mother brushed me aside — just a wave of the hand — and she said, Oh Abby, don’t be naïve, there’s always collateral damage during wartime.
And I thought, that’s so easy to say when it’s not you in the basement with your children, wondering if you might be lucky enough to survive long enough to start starving to death. Because that is the reality of shock and awe. That is the reality of collateral damage.
So, in the short term, I want to restore an appropriate amount of dread and revulsion for the idea of going to war to the American consciousness. I believe that if people really have all the information, they might do things differently.
My really wildest dreams are that we can reverse the momentum toward violent conflict and separate the ideas of conflict and violence in the global imagination. Because conflict is inevitable, but violence is a choice. It’s not natural. And it doesn’t have to happen.
PB: The first season of “Women, War & Peace” came out in 2011, and you’re now premiering the second season. From then to now, has the temperature in the room changed at all?
AD: Yeah, it’s changed a lot actually. I sat next to the general manager of a station in this city I was in this week — he was sort of an old school 60-plus white guy who managed a public television station in a relatively conservative place. And I sat next to him and watched the Northern Irish film, and I listened to him react. And what I heard from him was a lot of surprise, and a lot of pleasant surprise.
And what’s happening is I think he was less guarded than the same guy would’ve been in 2011. I think he was less defensive. I think he was less worried about what the implications were of what we were trying to say. And so, he was willing to let in the idea that these women were strategic, they were thoughtful, they were effective, and none of that threatened his sense of a man’s place.
PB: What do you think has changed these perceptions about women’s roles in brokering peace? What do you think has helped that?
AD: Oh, I think that the number of women elected to Congress, the #MeToo movement, the women’s march. . . . Donald Trump triggered a lot by being the sexist that he is. I think he revealed how ugly sexism is, how real it is in so many people’s lives. And as I go about talking about all this, I’m feeling this receptivity I didn’t feel eight years ago.
PB: That’s great, because I wanted to talk to you about women’s rights in the United States. Of course, there’s a lot of stuff that’s been exposed, but while it is changing some people’s minds it’s also exposing a lot of ugliness, people getting bolder. Where does that sit for you?
AD: You know what I think? I think that occasionally the law gets out in front of where the people are. And then sometimes the law’s behind where the people are. And I think where we are right now is — what’s happening in legal circles and courts and all these very retrograde laws being passed in the states — is that the chambers of legal decision-making, the state legislatures, the state courts, are packed with people who worked for 20 years to get into that position. And now they’re functioning on an agenda that’s 20 years old. But while they were looking the other way, working so hard to get into those positions, the ground shifted under their feet.
And so, the fetal heartbeat bills and all this kind of stuff, I think those are the last angry gasps of an aggrieved patriarch that doesn’t know what to do with itself.
PB: There’s so much you’ve seen in your children’s generation, are there things that you’ve seen that feel like back-pedaling?
AD: It’s such a swirl of complicated and conflicting forces. I feel like in my kids’ generation, they’ve taken three steps forward politically, and there’s stuff that they can say when the sun is up, and they’re in class, and the professor is supportive, and they’re reading Toni Morrison or whatever. And then when the sun goes down, they’re 50 steps behind where I was. They can’t assert themselves, they’re afraid of the social punishments of being feminists. And so, it’s a complicated time to be young right now.
And it’s not necessarily really easy to be a feminist. And I feel for them because it was always a question of social punishments to be a feminist. I feel like the world wasn’t entirely ready for the gender revolution, so there are sticking points that are really painful for everybody.
PB: What do you think your grandfather, Roy Disney, and your great-uncle Walt Disney, would have thought of your work? Because they were also creators and had this optimistic version.
AD: You know, it’s so hard to say, because it’s apples and oranges. During their time, they were John Birch Society conservatives. They were very much red-baiting, right-wing conservatives. So, if you go by that, they’d be really unhappy with me.
But if you go up to 30,000 feet and you think about their optimism? My grandfather had a quote: It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are. And I don’t remember when I first saw that quote, but I have taken it to heart. Because if you check in with your values, and you’re not sure whether to speak up, or if you worry about people being angry with you, or backlash is getting extreme, it’s much easier to function. Because that’s what carries me through things that are hard, you just check in with your values. My values are not that different from my grandfather’s.
PB: Going back to war and peace, what are your thoughts for future possibilities to build empathy and interest around peace?
AD: I have a wish to take on the question of peace and expand the notion of peace from its current incarnation. Because right now, Americans think of peace as a flaccid, ineffective, weak, unmanly, irrelevant side issue. And while between 1968 and today, in the last 50 years since we last in a very serious way used the word peace in sentences, there’s been this really robust movement quietly under the radar of people who study it, quantify it, philosophize about it, and you can get a Ph.D. in peace right now, in multiple institutions across the US.
And I am planning on taking on a very ambitious project that’s multiplatform and multimedia, vertically integrated – to attempt to reframe peace for the American people. I know that sounds crazy. But the crazy ideas are genetic. I gotta.
PB: Just one last Disney question, but this one’s fun. In terms of your feminist values, what Disney movie would you “Abigail-Disney-fy” and how?
AD: Well, you know, if you take a movie like “Sleeping Beauty,” where the heroine is asleep for most of the movie, I mean existentially that movie couldn’t exist, if I Abby’d it up — you couldn’t even start! So, you know, it’s hard to say!
But I will say that talking about the films that Walt and Roy made before the 60s, my favorite films are the ones where there’s real nuance, moral nuance. Like “Pinocchio.” And “Pinocchio” is an incredibly interesting film because it’s about redemption, it’s about the eternal possibility for people to learn and become good people. And that film moves me every time I see it. I mean, not only is it visually one of the most beautiful films he ever made, but it’s an incredibly morally rich film.
This article was updated on March 26, 2019.