SHU Hosts Documentary Filmmaker Abigail Disney

News Story: October 1, 2011
Dr. Abigail Disney

Abigail E. Disney, Ph.D., philanthropist and scholar, implored her audience of Sacred Heart University students and faculty that fixing the world’s ills can begin right at their doorsteps.

Dr. Disney’s appearance on October 3 in University Commons was part of The Human Journey Colloquia Series and was sponsored by the Master of Arts in Communication program, the program, the Middle Eastern Studies Program, University College and the Women’s Studies Program. She discussed and showed a trailer of her upcoming PBS mini-series “Women, War & Peace,” which will be broadcast on CPTV at 10 p.m. on October 11, 18, 25 and November 1 and 8.

The five-part series explores women’s strategic role in conflict and peace building. It shines a light on women who are changing the rules of engagement in conflict zones in Colombia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Liberia. Among those featured are Afghan women’s rights’ activists who risk everything, including their lives, to make sure that women have a say in peace talks with the Taliban and a daring Bosnian woman who breaks her silence and testifies about rape and sexual enslavement. The series was created by Dr. Disney, Pamela Hogan and Gini Reticker.

Dr. Disney is the daughter of Roy E. Disney and granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company with his brother Walt. She and her husband, Pierre Hauser, co-founded the Daphne Foundation, which works with low-income communities in New York City, where she lives. Her work in philanthropy, women’s engagement and leadership and conflict resolution has earned her the Epic Award from the White House Project, the Changing the Landscape for Women Award from the Center for the Advancement of Women, and the prestigious International Advocate for Peace Award from the Cardozo Law School’s Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution. She earned degrees at Yale, Stanford and Columbia Universities.

To eradicate “moral sleepwalking,” Dr. Disney said the first thing she wanted was an audience for the mini-series. She encouraged the group of young and old and student and faculty at University Commons to spread the word about the series and get people to watch it and learn. Second, she said, “We are in an historical moment,” adding that the younger generation of students can be “great builders in movements” to address social change. “That’s where your generation will come in,” she said to them directly.

“For every one movement, there are 250 more you’ve never heard about,” she said, adding that the reason those hundreds of activist movements are invisible is because the mainstream media ignores them.

The upper levels of corporations are motivated by the bottom line, but at what she called the “micro level,” it’s about people helping people. She added that that can be changed. “It’s one click of the remote control away. Also, get away from the isolation and watch in a community of people.” She reminded her audience that it often is missing the valuable and important stories. “And there are a lot more stories to tell.”

How and by whom a story is told are also important, said Dr. Disney. She asked the audience to imagine combat in war zones, adding that she was almost certain that image came from war movies or video games. What viewing audiences are accustomed to is the “John Wayne goes to war” fare. Men, she said, usually are filming those movies or even on-the-scene shots for newscasts. “Put a camera in the hands of a woman, it changes everything.”

She asked the audience to consider, “What are we seeing on television and what are we not seeing? We need to understand that the news decision is made by the guy behind the camera.”

Her interest in exploring women in war zones, and subsequently the creation of the PBS series, evolved from a story she overheard while she was in Liberia years ago. She got tidbits of the story about a group of courageous women during the civil war in Liberia and “like a jigsaw puzzle” the pieces started to come together. “Something had happened,” she said, “and I didn’t know about it, so I pushed to know.”

Then, one day she met an “ordinary guy” and asked him about the women who took on the warlords and the regime of Dictator Charles Taylor, wanting to know if the story was true. His reply was, ‘“Yes, those were amazing women,’” he told Dr. Disney. Major news organizations, such as CNN and BBC, were there at the time the women’s movement “but chose not to turn their cameras to record that important moment,” she said.

She illuminated the Liberian women’s story and their efforts to bring peace to their country in her documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which is part of the five-part mini-series. The film won numerous awards, including the Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008.

Earlier in the day, Dr. Disney met with a small group of students and faculty in a roundtable discussion of myriad issues, among them the struggles of independent filmmakers, the challenges of uncovering world atrocities, the genesis of the PBS series as well as her documentary film, the television viewing interests of the American public and what the networks consider as news, the way women are viewed in the United States and around the world and the state of feminism.

In response to a question by an assistant professor of English at SHU, Dr. Disney recounted a conversation she had with a woman in Morocco, who questioned her on American feminism. ‘“Why do you think you have so much to say about feminism?’" the woman asked her, detailing for Dr. Disney instances of conformity that American women follow, like what they wear. ‘“American feminism was never a unified movement,’” she continued telling Dr. Disney, who learned that there are women in other cultures who are more independent and strong-willed than those in the United States.

Dr. August added that “American feminism can be toxic to other women in other cultures.” Dr. Disney paused, and then offered that she believes “the new wave of feminism will come from Africa.”

With the PBS series premiering Oct. 11, Dr. Disney was asked about her future plans. She said her interests are “moving in a couple of directions,” specifically arms proliferation and poverty and violence among women in the United States. “We have a lot to look at on our own doorstep.”