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Filmmaker Abigail Disney Discusses Role Of Women In International Conflicts


Women are often the ones who suffer the most during conflicts, while men are the ones who are celebrated for their accomplishments during times of war. A new series produced exclusively for the PBS audience is hoping to shine a light on the contribution women are making in conflicts happening around the world. We speak to filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney about the new series Women, War & Peace.

Women are often the ones who suffer the most during conflicts, while men are the ones who are celebrated for their accomplishments during times of war. A new series produced exclusively for the PBS audience is hoping to shine a light on the contribution women are making in conflicts happening around the world. We speak to filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney about the new series Women, War & Peace.


Abigail Disney, producer of Women, War & Peace, which is a new series created for PBS that focuses on women's role in war and other conflicts. Abigail is also producer of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and granddaughter of Roy Disney.

If you are interested in watching Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego will be screening the film for free tonight at 6 p.m.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

In emerging nations around the world, women take the forefront in issues of war and peace. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, coming up on These Days, a new series that will air on public television this fall highlights the strategic role that women are playing in international conflicts. And focuses on their courage in seeking both justice and peace. We'll speak to the producer of the series. Plus, kids who don't see much of the natural world in urban San Diego get a chance to explore the mysteries of the ocean and the wonders of science through the ocean discovery institute. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When war is the issue, women's voices are seldom heard, even though women suffer, mourn, and die in every conflict, their share of war's pain, and their courage is often unacknowledged. A new PBS series highlights women's roles in recent wars and poses the argument that women are becoming central to the issues of inflict and security in the emerging areas of the world. The women war and peace series is produced by Abigail Disney, who also made the acclaimed documentary, pray the devil back to hell. Of she said in town for a screening of that film and to talk about her new series. It's a pleasure to welcome Abigail Disney to These Days. Good morning.

DISNEY: Good morning. Great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for coming in. Tell us a lot bit more about the focus of this series, women, war, and peace.

DISNEY: Well, the idea was to shine a light on something that isn't much discussed. I mean, I think that every American has a sense of what war looks like and feels like, and we kind of don't really acknowledge that most of what we think we know comes from movies and television and books and things like that. And so -- I sort of think that it's like you sewed a camera into John Wayne's green beret of that's what it always comes from. And so if you took that camera and you put it in the hands of a woman, who would war look like from her point of view? From her eyes? So you get this interesting, different perspective. You start understanding, first of all, it's more than combat. Combat is a peace of war. But war is a totalizing, uncivilized experience.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how are women affected by let's say conflicts that we hear about in places like Afghanistan and Columbia and Liberia?

DISNEY: Right. Well, there are dimensions to it that we tend not to acknowledge. For instance, in Bosnia, which is one of the wars we cover, the way that rape was used as a tool of ethnic cleansing, it was very strategic, it had genocidal impulses, and these were very explicit all wait through. So that piece of it, we've always acknowledged rape as this sort of inevitable piece of war, but we've never really paid attention to the way sexual violence has been used tactically, strategically. And [CHECK] that's one piece of it. But it's so much broader than sexual violence. And we have a tendency to settle on sexual violence as the obvious place. But women have this very important role to play in holding communities together. Because in war time, the men either up and leave to go participate, or they can't be in their communities because they're trying not to participate. And so women have a greater range of movement, and it falls on them to, you know, gather the wood, get the water, feed the children, educate people, move people across landscapes. Very often when they're dislocated. Find healthcare. All of these things fall to women to do. So that's this whole back line of activity of holding the communities together that women do during war time, and that back line activity comes into play in an Enormously important way in the transition from war to peace. And if those women are called upon with greater effectiveness and with greater frequency, when we do turn to peace, I think we would learn a lot about how to hold communities together. And to keep them going in stressful times.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Abigail Disney, and we're talking about her new series for PBS, it's going to be on the air next fall of it's called women, war, and peace. And you told us about Bosnia. What are some of the places that you do visit in this series though? Who will viewers meet?

DISNEY: So -- I think of it as viewers get to meet the people that I've been meeting for years that keep me happy. I study a lot with war, and somehow I'm an optimist because of the people I meet. So we meet the people in Bosnia who obviously were victimized, but it's so much more important than that. Because what they did was they didn't sit back and wait for people to help them. They didn't sit back and wait for people to save then. They stepped up. They demanded accountability, and it really was because of their [CHECK] in war time. So Bosnia is one of the places we go. Columbia is one of the places we go, and we look at a community of people who are trying not to be thrown off of their lands. They're trying to hold onto their land, and they're resisting in this incredibly courageous way that is really inspiring. We go to Afghanistan, and I know that most of us when we picture women in Afghanistan, we see this kind of lump under a Burka, we don't really have an image of women who walk and talk and run for office and things like that. And in fact there are extraordinary women in Afghanistan who hold office, who are activists, who organize people, who do education work and so forth. And we get to meet some of these feisty, amazing women.

CAVANAUGH: We have a clip from your series, women, war, and peace, featuring some of the voices of women in Afghanistan. Let's play that clip right now.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm always afraid, especially when there are a lot of suicide attempts. Of when I go out of the house in the morning, I say goodbye to my children, and my family, because I say that I never know whether I'm coming alive back home or not.

NEW SPEAKER: As the warring parties inch toward peace talks, Afghan women risk their lives to shape the future of their country.

NEW SPEAKER: God forbid Afghanistan's government decides to negotiate unconditionally with the Taliban. Because I'm certain the Taliban has demands against women.

NEW SPEAKER: We Taliban will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner. This will be a good lesson for those women like you who are working.

CAVANAUGH: That's a clip from women, war, and peace, a new series that will be shown on PBS this fall. And produced by my guest Abigail Disney. So often when it comes to resolving issues of war, again, women's voices are not heard. And what can -- what role can women play in resolving these conflicts?

DISNEY: Well, I think that first of all, when the peace talks are convened, half the people there are there because they shop their way there. And let's face it, that's the one credential that you can't argue with, because they're the people that you want to [CHECK] but the other half of the people there are governments and activists and civil society and so forth. And that's the group of people that generally speaking women could really be there among. But there is a kind of language that's spoken in those rooms which doesn't really credit the way women operate as being serious enough or authoritative enough. I've heard people say in the UN community among mediators they don't like women as mediators because they're too quick to compromise. Of so for instance, that's a great example of, well, actually that sounds to me like a good quality in somebody who comes to a peace talk and a mediator. So there are ways in which women just simply have been defined out of the frame, in terms of those peace talks. And when they get to the room and they can really bring all of their concerns that they have been contending with during this conflict to the table, they can really talk to us about, for instance, which communities need water first. Where are the schools broken in? Where are the weapons? They know where the weapons are, generally speaking of where are the i.e. Ds? Afghan women know where the i.e. Ds are. So they have information we need, and they have wisdom that we tend not to call upon during these kinds of times. We have a tendency to say, oh, well, first we'll get the scare, then we'll take care of the side issue, the women. But when you talk [CHECK] aren't half of them the women?

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Abigail Disney, [CHECK] pray the devil back to hell. I want to talk a little bit about that documentary because it highlighted women in Liberia, and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. When can we learn from her story?

DISNEY: Well, I think a million things. A million things. I'm a little preoccupied today with the ivory coast story which is right next door, and there's word that I just got this morning that there have been another -- there's been another shooting at another peace protest. And I know these women are protesting because they've seen our film, and they're wearing white, and they're Muslim and Christian women working together, and it really makes me so sick. But they're -- Ellen Sirleaf, I was raised on the domino theory that a country goes down, and it knocks all the other countries down. But when you push the domino back up, maybe the other [CHECK] Ellen like the domino that stands up. And she is setting a standard for governance and for order, and for a way to relate to people as a president that's unheard of. Of not just in Africa, and not just regionally but frankly around the world. And I do think that the fact that the opposition even had a chance in that election was frankly due to the fact that they looked next door to their neighbor and they turned out to elect a different kind of person in a different kind of way because they came to an understanding by watching what happened next door to them that it didn't always have to be this way.

CAVANAUGH: Tell our listeners more about what's going on in ivory coast and why you're concerned.

DISNEY: [CHECK] the other countries tend to be more vulnerable. Of that's why it's worrisome. Ivory coast has had a dictator for a long, long time, and it's the kind of dictator that we're familiar with who we've been friendly with, lots of western powers have been friendly with because he was cooperative to business and to our interests there. He has long been a very discredited dictator, and they finally had some elections a few months ago, the opposition party won the election, every international observer acknowledges that that's true, and bag bow, the current dictator is not stepping down, he's refused every chance to mediate, and refused every offer to get him out of the country. It's the women's position, and I just spoke with lama bowie, who is the leader from our film who has worked with women in the ivory coast and is thinking of going back there now to work with them now. The international community hasn't quite done enough yet: I mean, I don't think they've done enough [CHECK] enemy the crisis is over. So it's too early for anyone to be giving up on what's happening. And a lot of the international efforts have kind of drained out of the community and they have been left to their own devices. And what we have now is a very tense stalemate in an area where there's an enormous amount of weapons.

CAVANAUGH: And what you have, too, as you say, women dressed in white joining in these protest, having protests on their own, and obviously having been influenced by your film, which is the kind of influence that you want these films to have. And yet, at the same time, what kind of responsibility do you feel?

DISNEY: I feel a horrible sense of responsibility. I'm not sleeping well because of it, because I do feel -- and I have worried for -- about this since the day the film opened about the day that someone would step out and protest and be killed as a result of what they saw in our film. So I have -- yes, it's everything I wished for and everything I feared in terms of the film. But there's an important principle at work here.


DISNEY: Which is, actually, the heart and soul of the principle of nonviolence. And Gandhi and king, and everyone else who has written or spoken articulately about nonviolence has been very clear that nonviolence is not the same as being passive. And there has to be a willingness to confront danger, and there has to be a willingness to confront violence with nonviolence. And I do not take lightly to the deaths of these women, but they will only have died for nothing if everyone else gives up.

CAVANAUGH: And isn't it more this -- what's going on in your film, this spirit of courage and resistance that you just happened to document as part of the film that is spreading with or without the film?

DISNEY: Yeah. I mean, there is clearly a global women's movement that has -- is riding from the grass roots. And I'm not just now spouting some fairy tale. I know because I've been to these countries and I've talked to women at the grass-roots in Morocco and Egypt and lots of places. And they speak in very similar vocabulary about the qualities that they see that they possess that they need to bring to leadership. And how those qualities are really critical to making change. Women were at the center of the Tahrir square, they were at the center of the Tunisian protests, the press always misses that story. I don't know why. Am but there are a lot of people who have been critical to women in those things [CHECK] into governance.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that if you are interested in watching pray the devil back to hell, the Joan B. Crock institute for peace and justice at the university of San Diego will be screening the film for free tonight at 6:00 PM. And the series, women war and peace, will broad cast this fall on PBS stations, if you'd like to get a little bit of an idea of what it's about, you can go to Abigail Disney, thanks so much.

DISNEY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment on this segment, please go on-line, Days. Coming up, San Diego kids explore the wonders of science through the ocean discovery institute. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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