Grand-niece of Walt Disney, Abigail Disney could easily have lived in a little rich (wo)man’s world. Instead, her years at college – studying English literature at Yale, Stanford and Columbia – fired her up to defend women’s rights. A life-changing trip in Liberia in 2006 led her to produce Pray the Devil Back to Hell, her first documentary, which won Abigail worldwide recognition. As one of the leading peace makers and women’s rights supporters, she was invited to speak at the Women’s Forum in Deauville. She talks to Myriam Crété-O’Carroll about her uncompromising engagement of women’s rights.
This film actually really spoke their language, so it was an explosion which led directly into the Women, War and Peace project because there so clearly was this hunger for women to be seen, to be visible, to have their existence affirmed.
How was it to grow up as a little Disney girl?
I grew up in LA. It was great; I can’t complain. We got to go to Disneyland all the time. I rode the Small World ride when it first opened next to my grandfather in the first car, so I have really lovely memories.
Did you realise the power of the name?
The first time I ever really understood it was when Walt died. I was six years old and when I saw the cover of Time magazine it had a picture of Mickey Mouse with a tear and I thought, ‘Wow, people are really upset about this’. It seemed other people’s grandfathers and uncles didn’t get that kind of attention, so it was the beginning of understanding it.
Considering your family background, how did you end up fighting for women’s rights?
My family was very conservative. I was very much discouraged to have a political sensibility and certainly not a feminist sensibility, so I didn’t really give it much thought until I went to college. Years after, one day someone asked me to come to an event for the benefit of a women’s organisation. Although I was a little mistrustful of women in those days, I went and it was extraordinary. It was women gathering to strategise about poverty, violence and families and they were really creative, smart, feisty and funny. It was just a shock and I thought ‘I need to be here’. From then I started doing a lot of volunteer work for that organisation and then I just followed it all upstream.
What was the turning point that prompted you to make a film to denunciate violence against women?
It’s very vivid as it was when I went to Liberia. I was forty-six; I’d never made a film before. I realised something really big had happened and no one outside of Liberia knew. And honestly it made me angry. But I also knew, from studying women’s history, women always do things in obscurity. And that obscurity tends to isolate them from each other and every time they do something they feel like they’re the first people on earth to do it. And that’s a really difficult way to operate. I thought, ‘What if we could pull this one back from being forgotten? What if we could save this one before it goes over the edge and then hold it up for the women to see?’ And that was really the job. So I was afraid but it was so important.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell was your first documentary. How was it welcomed?
I partnered with a really great film-maker because I’m not an idiot and I knew enough to know that I could really mess it up if I tried it myself. We worked really hard on that film and we didn’t know whether people would want it or not. Many festivals turned us down … until Tribeca came along, and it exploded. We won the best documentary award and we were the most popular film at the festival. I went from thinking ‘Oh well’ to ‘Wow’, so everything after it was an improvisation!
What were you most proud of?
Where we were really successful was reaching out to women’s organisations around the world that wanted to show this film. We’re talking about Bosnia, Cambodia, Peru, Colombia, Canada – where the indigenous people are. This film actually really spoke their language, so it was an explosion which led directly into the Women, War and Peace project because there so clearly was this hunger for women to be seen, to be visible, to have their existence affirmed. Each screening turned into a very pragmatic real-world discussion of what’s happening now. So like in Tblisi, when they showed the film, the women sat that night and wrote a women’s statement on the war which in six months before the Russians went into Abkhazia and Ossetia so that’s kind of to give you a sense of what exactly was happening.
You were invited to speak at the Women’s Forum – what is your big ask for women going forward?
My big ask is that, as the world is inevitably opening up, it will open up increasingly to women’s participation. Therefore I would ask women not to be afraid to bring everything they know to the process.
And your hope?
My hope is that, in that process, we can change the way systems work because if we don’t change the paradigms, if we don’t change the nature of power in our contemporary world, we are all going to die. We’re going to die of an overly competitive set of systems – a tendency to believe that we are all independent, not interdependent. It’s a very toxic belief that there are any problems solved by war or violence.
For more information visit http://www.peaceisloud.org/.