Abigail Disney: Documentary Filmmaker

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Framed photos line the sill of the big picture window in Abigail Disney’s office, tinted according to their decade. We’re setting up in the Daphne Foundation, the family foundation she established with husband Pierre Hauser to fight poverty in New York City. It is also the headquarters of her production company, Fork Films, which is currently in post-production for The Trials of Spring, a documentary about the role of women in the Arab Spring.

On the wall, there’s an enigmatic painting of a girl with a dunce cap, and behind the desk, I spot a tongue-in-cheek painting of Chairman Mao sporting Mickey Mouse ears. I silently hope that we can get the latter into the shot when we begin filming the interview with Abigail, but her assistant enters, and quietly tucks Mickey Mao away.

Still, it’s no secret that, as the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, and grand-niece of Walt Disney, Abigail wrestled with the weight of her famous last name: In an interview with Moira Forbes, she confesses that she had felt her last name entered the room before she did. She sought refuge from the family business in academia (she has a PhD and MA in English Literature from Columbia and Stanford, respectively), and then in the non-profit space.

It was through her interest in women’s leadership that she discovered the must-be-told story of the Liberian women’s peace movement, and came to forge her own, bold path in filmmaking with Pray the Devil Back to Hell. As the audience applauded the film’s uplifting ending at the Tribeca Film Festival (where it won Best Documentary), she was even able to joke that she’d inadvertently made a Disney film.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

This Disney film, however, did not shy away from the horrors of war: The documentary covers events during the time of Liberia’s second civil war, when the country was under the bloody rule of warlord Charles Taylor. Families were constantly on the run from militias which conscripted child soldiers, and food was scarce. Taylor was eventually convicted of war crimes by an international criminal court. His actions were described by the presiding judge as “some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”
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Leymah Gbowee, whom Abigail calls “an extraordinary leader,” is the central figure in the documentary. Tired of war and its effects on her children, the social worker and mother convinced Christian and Muslim women to put aside religious differences and join together in protest. Together, they demonstrated on the road along Taylor’s daily drive until they gained an audience with him. He was pressured to attend peace talks in Ghana with the other Liberian warlords and to bring about a resolution, which ultimately led to his ousting. In a spine-tingling speech addressed to the senate and Taylor, she says they were protesting because in the future, they would have to answer to their children, “what was your role during the crisis?” Abigail says of Leymah, “I don’t hesitate to call that heroic behavior.”

As the audience applauded the film’s uplifting ending, she was even able to joke that she’d inadvertently made a Disney film.

Abigail realized that the heroic story of the women’s role in this historical event was in danger of being erased. The story was shared orally, but few major news outlets had covered it. Thus it was as a filmmaker, she says, that she became more public, and embraced her last name, which was no longer a burden: “I felt I had to deploy everything at my disposal.” Suddenly, she realized, the privileges she had struggled with were “all incredible gifts and advantages…Once I figured out that I had resources that weren’t just confined to money itself, I realized that there was so much more that I could bring to the party.”

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Pray the Devil screening in Lima, Peru. Photo courtesy Fork Films.

Impact of Pray the Devil

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Left to right: 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Tawakkol Karman, Leymah Gbowee, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Because of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Leymah and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who became Africa’s first woman president) were ultimately recognized for their role in ending the 14-year civil war, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

The film went on to became part of a five-part PBS series Abigail produced called Women, War and Peace. The series, with its wider scope, examines the role of women in the war-torn regions of Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Colombia.

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PIL_logo_320The documentary also led to the creation of the grassroots organization Peace is Loud, which inspires peace-building action through media and live events. Screenings of the film “triggered the same thing kind of everywhere we went in the world. You didn’t have to adjust for language or culture or religion or any of these things.”

Abigail Disney at a screening in Lima, Peru. Courtesy Fork Films.
Abigail Disney at a screening in Lima, Peru. Courtesy Fork Films.

Abigail thinks of peace not as a static state but an active process: “Peace is not just putting the guns down. It’s not the absence of violence; it’s the presence of peace. We wanted to promote the idea that peace is something–it’s a verb. It’s something you seek out, and make and build. And everyone should see themselves as a peacebuilder in their everyday lives.”

Philanthropy: Family and the Daphne Foundation

Abigail remarks her family and Leymah “blended into this great whole.” This idea of family appears elsewhere in her life, namely in the approach of the family foundation (the Daphne Foundation) she and husband Pierre Hauser started, which treats its partners as family: “I don’t think you can go wrong if you behave with everyone as though you are with your family. You know, because what does that mean exactly? It means that you extend love and warmth to the people around you. Try to treat everybody fairly. You care about their well-being.”

She spent a lot of time working with a number of nonprofits and saw what was problematic about them: “They very often function with seventy percent of what they need to do their jobs. In the smaller organizations that means executive directors will go months without salaries. People will not have plans for their retirement. People will not have access to healthcare. Many people will be one paycheck away from being their own clients!” Aware of “the perpetual starvation cycle for  grantees,” Abigail’s approach with the Daphne Foundation was long-term; some of the New York City grassroots organizations have been funded by the Daphne Foundation for over a decade.

“If we do our business in a way that runs through and tears people up then we’re not behaving well,” she continues. “It’s like running a really fine car too hot all the time. So we really believe in taking care of and making sure people are OK in our sector, supporting them as leaders and human beings.”

Grantees of the Daphne Foundation in NYC
Grantees of the Daphne Foundation in NYC

She laughs when I ask her if there is something feminine about this: “[You mean] is that a girl thing? You know I’m not sure. Because of course my husband’s really on board with the idea too. I don’t think family really stops at your front door.”

The Shirt Off His Back

I ask Abigail about her childhood, musing if the roots of her philanthropic and activist motivations are to be found there: “Very often people who commit themselves to social change were shaped by something in their youth. I had a pretty happy childhood, nobody kidnapped me or anything like that! I do think, and this may sound ridiculous, but when you’re the third or fourth child you have your eye on justice. You do get sensitive about unfair treatment.” She jokes: “Even if your perspective is narcissistic a little bit.”

She had a pattern of learning about heroes, and hers was St. Francis of Assisi: “As a little Catholic girl, I read everything you could read about St. Francis, because he was a rock star for me. St Francis is known to be the guy who talks to the animals…In fact, he was the richest kid in town, Assisi. His father was a really wealthy guy.”

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St. Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man – Giotto

When St. Francis was at the beginnings of manhood, “he started to notice the poverty around him…And ultimately just gave away everything he owned. And literally this is where the expression the shirt off his back comes from.”

It’s hard not to see how Abigail drew inspiration from the figure of St. Francis. She is reported to give away all of the income that she does not use, and recently began to make million dollar grants: “I was so moved by the idea of just offering your whole life up and everything that you have in your legacy in the name of being a better person. Helping because you really, genuinely care, because your heart is moved–because you feel like less of a person because everyone around you is not getting what they need. That moved me and stayed with me all of my life.”

Creativity and Social Change

Abigail sees creativity as a vital part of social change. One of the first aspects is a receptivity to creative thinking: “The fact is we’re a problematic culture and we find our way to violence far too quickly and far too often because we never have thought about changing the way we think or changing our patterns of behavior, or digging very deep and rooting out the reactions that we have and changing those. And that involves creative thinking.”

“It involves thinking about a problem with new eyes, fresh eyes, and finding a different way to the solution, she adds. “Social change doesn’t happen without creativity,  and people who are willing to think differently and assess that thinking as important, authoritative, real.”

Art is key in this receptivity: “The role that art plays in changing people’s hearts is hard to overstate. And I just read a quote yesterday that art’s supposed uselessness, is in fact a key to why it’s so transformative. The fact that it’s not utilitarian, that it doesn’t give you x and y that are measurable, causes the people who interact with it to be receptive to new understandings and ways of thinking.

“You can’t have a movement without art. Because what needs to change is culture, and culture shapes hearts.”

No Sacred Cow

Most of her funding has been directed at women (women in prison, women with HIV, women who are community organizers, and women who have experienced domestic violence). However, she points out that “There is no such thing as the sacred cow.”

At one point, she says, she had a distrust of feminism: “Running across  women who claimed to be feminists, who were just absolutely unkind…for a while some of the meanest people I met were feminists!”

“It’s like the elephant in the room. If you see it, you have to name it and you have to question it. Because if we all pretend that women are perfect, and they never do anything wrong, and they’re never greedy and they are never corrupt, we will allow for all of that to grow up in our midst and without questioning it. It undermines us when we say that there is a difference when women step into power if we allow that to happen.”

We talk about another elephant in the room, indirect aggression between women, which is being acknowledged more in public discourse. She offers some advice for young women: “It’s very destructive to not speak the truth when you see it. I think that young women have to be frank with each other. When they are not feeling supported they have to call it and say it, and then they have to be really conscientious themselves. Notice when you’re feeling jealousy. Because we all feel it. Notice when you’re feeling territorial. Notice when you’re feeling angry because the spotlight isn’t on you. And work on that in yourself and then we’ll create a community of supportive people.”

“A lot of people, when I talk about women and peace, and that they have a relationship that’s really important, everybody names Margaret Thatcher as proof that I’m wrong. It’s kind of funny to me, because if everybody names the same person, I think you’re proving my point. Because we have millennia of war, and you’re naming the same person over and over again. Nevertheless, I think to understand a Margaret Thatcher, or women who have emerged recently like her — if you climb over a pile of poop to get to the top, you’ll be covered in poop at the top. That’s what happens when women enter the systems without challenging the system themselves. I’m not interested in women getting to the top to get them at the top. I’m interested in what they can bring to the system itself in terms of paradigm shift. Because it’s the system that’s the problem, not the person at the top.”

Arab Spring

Continuing her global focus on women’s leadership, Abigail’s film production Fork Films is currently working in post-production on a project about the role of women in the revolutions of the Arab Spring: “We were going to tell a kind of rearview mirror story about the way women figured in the uprisings and how they had a larger role than we were giving them credit for. That we were, actively in real time, forgetting them just like we have forgotten so many womens’ stories. It was pretty straightforward: we get some interviews, some archival footage and that would be that.” However, when Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi granted himself unlimited powers and was overthrown by the Muslim Brotherhood, everything changed.

Still from Trials of War, Courtesy Fork Films
From The Trials of Spring (unreleased), courtesy Fork Films

That was when they realized they had to tell a character-driven, verité story: “we were going to be watching history form in front of us. And watching people genuinely take risks for what’s right. So we were following women in Tunisia and Egypt as they actively tried to pull a democracy out of the confusion and the not-yet-settled dust of what happened in the Arab uprisings.”

Abigail says it is clear in the countries that women were key: “Both on the authoritarian military side as well as on the fundamentalist religious side, both of them have gone after women’s rights as quickly as they could get their hands on the reins of power.”

From Trials of Spring, courtesy Fork Films
From The Trials of Spring (unreleased), courtesy Fork Films

Her goal is to raise the profile of the women to the outside world and to themselves so they can be effective actors: “These women need to be visible to the rest of the world. What they do matters and we need to acknowledge the authority of what they say and do. They need our support from the outside and then they need to be visible to themselves. This is one of the insidious things about these stories of women disappearing; when you’re invisible to yourself, it’s really hard to understand that you matter. It undermines your capacity to organize politically.”

Disney Magic

Peace is a big theme in her work, but Abigail’s peace with herself also rings through loud and clear: “So I grew up in a family that believed in film as a medium and used it to do actually wonderful things and make beautiful, beautiful films that affected people’s hearts. And I guess I don’t know if it’s genetic or whatever, but I have a deep belief in that magic of what happens in the dark, in front of a screen, where you forget where you are. You forget who you are. If you have a pain in your knee you even forget you have that. That is a deep state of receptivity that is an incredibly powerful moment for making the world a better place I think. And so far popular culture uses that power to inculcate values of aggression and violence and a very narrow definition of masculinity.”

Abigail ends the interview with a metaphor for the movement she is building: “Somebody once told me if you want a garden full of flowers, not weeds, you just plant more flowers. I see what I do as planting flowers. I’m never gonna be big enough to push back on this massive Hollywood industrial complex. But I can be as big as I can possibly be, and bring some others with me, and build a movement that way.”

Xenia Shin

Abigail Disney’s speech at the 2008 MY HERO International Film Festival

Trailer for The Trials of Spring
http://www.trialsofspring.com/stories/trailer