Abigail Disney was well into mature adulthood when she made her first film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about women leading a peace movement in Liberia. Now she is making a name for herself beyond her famous lineage by documenting women’s lives and survival skills in war-torn countries.
“When you make your first film at 47 and anybody but your mother goes to see it, to me that’s a miracle,” Disney said in a talk Wednesday in Washington, D.C. that was at turns funny and self-deprecating, eliciting knowing laughter from a ballroom of mostly women even as she spread the message that has become the guiding light of her life.
“I was a bit of a lost lamb in my twenties, trying to find my higher calling,” she confessed. She had everything, degrees from Yale, Stanford, and Columbia, a family that is legendary in filmmaking, but with four young children she was “tethered” (her word) to New York. She recalled going into neighborhoods in Manhattan and the outer boroughs where she found women “pushing back against a particularly rough capitalism you find in our cities, especially New York.”
Years later, as her children got older “and the leash was longer,” her interest in how women survived in the most daunting conditions led her to film stories in war-torn countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Bosnia, Congo, and Liberia. She filmed what she saw “to spread the good news”: that women can make a difference through grassroots activism. She aimed to replace the images of war that her generation was raised on—“images that lure us into conflicts… with the power of romantic attraction nearly impossible for young men to resist.” She shows a grittier picture based on the day-to-day experiences of women.
“If you take yourself out of your comfort zone, no matter how educated you are, you haven’t a clue about how the rest of the world lives,” Disney told the audience convened by The National Democratic Institute. Time spent in places diplomats regard as hardship posts have given her “a life of meaning along with [knowing] some of the best people on earth,” she said. Casting her eyes upward, she added, “I can hear my father laughing from somewhere up there when I call myself an artist.”
Asked after her speech what she meant by that—did her father, Roy Disney, think of the family business as entertainment rather than art, and perhaps he didn’t take himself that seriously? She paused a long moment and said, “He didn’t take me all that seriously.”
Well, Disney is making up for any time she might have lost in her process of self-discovery with what she does to shine a light on the real casualties of war—the women and children. The nonprofits she has founded help women make their lives better: the Daphne Foundation supports grassroots activism and grew out of her early forays into New York neighborhoods;
Peace Is Loud focuses on women in conflict zones. It all makes her the ideal luncheon speaker at the launch of the Madeleine K. Albright Women’s Project to break down the barriers that keep women from engaging in politics.
A morning panel discussion about how women can benefit from technology and social media examined the challenge of “moving from Tahrir Square to governing,” as Albright put it, and whether it’s possible to turn a bloggers’ revolution into a government.
Summing up the panel in her inimical way, Disney said, “Women talk and talk and talk. There is no group of people more suited to this technological challenge than women. …This is our moment.”
Her production company, Fork Films, got its name when her son, Eamon, then just a toddler, wanted to call a new kitten “Fork,” one of the few words he knew. The name didn’t work for a cat, and to assuage her son, she bestowed it on her company in a gesture typical of her big, warm personality and her quirky sense of humor. She self-funded her first film—a mistake, she says, because people initially saw it as a vanity project. Pray the Devil won Best Documentary at the Tribeca film festival in 2008, and Disney has taken the film to 32 countries, sparking dialogue and seeding grassroots activism. “I have a friend who tweeted ‘I want to hug you with my robot arms,’” she said, smiling like someone who had found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
She admits a twinge of jealousy toward fellow documentarian Ken Burns, whose projects are heavily promoted. He was even a category on Jeopardy!, she exclaims.
All the more reason for women to support each other, she said. “When women direct a film, you go to the film, and then you don’t hold it to a higher standard than a man,” she chided. And when the Washington Post highlights the stiletto-shoe collection of the White House counsel, write them a letter: “Let them have it.” And when your daughter asks for a doll, give her a computer, too. And when your son asks for a computer, give him a doll, too. And if a woman runs for president in 2016, “For God’s sake, can you leave her pantsuits alone!” she declared. “Talk about what she’s talking about, not what she’s wearing.”
Disney’s brand of activism is probably not what her father had in mind, but she’s stretching the family name in ways that women across the globe appreciate and applaud.