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Amicus Award: Abigail Disney, Crusader for Change

By Frako Loden

Abigail Disney. Photo: Michael Angelo.

IDA's Amicus Award goes to an individual who has been a great supporter, financially or otherwise, of documentary filmmaking. The recipient of this year's award is Abigail Disney, producer, funder and director of many of the most distinctive and influential recent documentaries.

Disney was born into a legendary filmmaking family that put its imprimatur on Hollywood and the world of entertainment. But the movie industry wasn't her primary métier at first; she earned degrees in English from Yale, Stanford and Columbia, then ventured into philanthropy, starting up nonprofits that embraced the kind of social issues that would eventually lead her to the documentary community—and back to the filmmaking fold.

In 2007, Disney produced her first documentary, Gini Reticker's Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the civil war in Liberia and the efforts of a team of women there to bring about peace. In conjunction with the release of that film, Disney and Reticker founded Fork Films as a means of producing and funding work—particularly by women—that would make a significant social impact. Pray the Devil Back to Hell was also a focal component of Fork Films' acclaimed documentary series Women, War & Peace, which aired on PBS in 2012. Women, War & Peace II, a sequel series, comes to PBS in 2018.

Over the past decade, Fork Films has supported 90 documentaries, including Cameraperson, Trapped, Strong Island, 1971, The Square and The Invisible War. Disney's directorial debut, The Armor of Light, about an evangelical Christian who struggles to reconcile his pro-life values with his community’s pro-gun control position, earned an Emmy this year for Outstanding Social Issue Documentary.

Documentary spoke with Disney by phone in her office in New York City. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What's been the effect on you of growing up in a famous filmmaking family?

When you have a name like this, it arrives in every room before you do, so a lot of people draw conclusions about who you are, or what you're capable of, or even what your politics are, before you open your mouth. That's frankly annoying. But you get used to it, and it turns into the thing that you carry. You eventually stop pushing back against it and start realizing that it's really more good than bad. My mother once said to me, "At least you have a name to live up to and not a name to live down."

My dad, Roy E. Disney, made films when I was growing up—those Sunday-night films that many of us grew up on. He was a person who was not unaware of the influence that his stories could have on the platform that he had, and once in a while he really did make a point of using it well. In a film about peregrine falcons, he made sure people understood that the reason they were endangered was DDT. Years ago I went to an Audubon Society event for him, and they were thanking him for changing their lives as children. I was so blown away by that because I never saw him as a social-justice guy, but in fact he did have his impact. Still, I didn't get to filmmaking myself until my late 40s.

I went to New York to get my PhD in English literature. I had a plan that I would go live on some campus and teach everybody English and be like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, be the great professor who changed students' lives. But then I had four children along the way, so I had to make a life around them. I was also doing a lot of work on nonprofit boards and raising money for charity and doing some grantmaking of my own. It was like a university, a university of social justice.

When I started making films, I went at it at warp speed, hyper-conscious of the fact that I was late getting to it. I was late because of the filmmaking history in my family. I had my differences with my family, big important differences, and I really did need to go and be my own person for a while. I'm glad I waited.

Do you remember the first documentary film that stirred you?

I remember very distinctly: Life and Debt. It was about the World Bank in Jamaica. The reason it had such an impact on me was that I had been working with low-income women in New York. My eyes and ears had been changed by that experience, and so I was ready to hear what [director Stephanie Black] had to say, and I felt enormous empathy for the people who were put in an impossible position by the World Bank—it really hit in the middle of my stomach. And also [Jonathan Demme's] The Agronomist—there was something about that film that was so powerful.

How did you get in involved in producing documentaries?

My nonprofit social-justice life led me to Liberia. My kids were old enough that they were in school all day, and I felt a little freer to go farther afield. Someone asked me to go to Liberia. It seemed like an intriguing place to go since it was so recently at war. While I was there, I heard this amazing story. It's kind of crazy because it was absolutely the right time for me to hear about it. I came home obsessed with this story, and that became Pray the Devil Back to Hell [2008].

From 'Pray The Devil Back to Hell.'

Which became part of the first Women, War & Peace series. It’s amazing it was your first producing effort.

It was a lucky break for me that Gini Reticker, my director, my partner in filmmaking, was the right person in every way, not just to make that film but also to help me understand the lay of the land and be able to see good from bad. She was a good guide and a great partner. And God knows, we hit the lotto with [principal subject, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate] Leymah Gbowee, who was just such a star.

Do you keep up with her?

We're very close. We almost immediately turned into sisters, and my kids are her kids and vice versa. We have Christmas together. We just launched the Women, Peace and Security program at Columbia University, which is going to be an endowed program that she runs. She gives a lot of speeches around the country and the world. She gets invited by the United Nations to do conflict resolution. She works a lot in South Sudan as well as Libya, Sri Lanka, Brazil. She is active around the world and seen as a global figure in peace building, which is amazing.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell opened the door to Women, War & Peace, which led to every documentary filmmaker on earth stampeding to me for money. That forced me to develop a process, because if you just react to funding requests, you will lose your mind. At first my process was that people would buttonhole me after Q&As and make whatever opportunity they could with me. Then I would pull something off the slush pile and look at it. Generally I would be attracted to things that are surprising, new ways to look at a problem that's old. I like surprising advocates, people you didn't expect to say what they say. I like filmmakers who are on their first or second project—I like supporting them in getting started. I like underdogs.

I do come from a social-justice background, so it matters to me that a filmmaker has some kind of plan for affecting the world. I want viewers to get out of bed the next day with some different idea about how to be in the world because of the film. We favor films that have outreach plans, plans for affecting the world.

Tell me about being CEO and president of Fork Films.

It was one of those things that started by accident. I needed to have some entity that owned Pray the Devil Back to Hell so that we could do the licensing work, etc. So I just slapped together an entity with my lawyer and gave it the name Fork because I didn't really think it was going to be that big of a deal. But so many things happened so quickly that it turned into a real thing, and it took me three or four years before I realized I needed to start doing things on purpose instead of just by accident. It caused me to go back and review everything and ask myself some hard questions about what I was trying to accomplish.

Then I directed Armor of Light (2015). That was the first time I directed, and I really want to do some more of that. There isn't enough time for me to do those things—that's one of my challenges. I'm working on a book, and I still run my foundation, and I still sit on eight different nonprofit boards, and I try to raise money for those organizations, and I invest money and have a few businesses that I'm interested in. If I never slept, I still would not have enough time to do everything I want to do.

Following Armor of Light, are you going to continue to pursue films about gun violence?

Yes, for sure, because it's the heart of the heart of America's problems: our relationship to and an understanding of violence. I don’t think anything will change in this country until we really wrap our heads around that. It addresses the empathy gap, toxic masculinity and so forth. I know from Pray the Devil Back to Hell that a single film can have an enormously long tail. I was just in Kenya this summer on a shoot, and I was showing Pray the Devil Back to Hell and having talkbacks afterwards about peace and peace-building, the roles women can play. That film never really ended. Right now, Leymah is in Liberia showing it in the run-up to the runoff election there.

So it never stops. I feel that way about Armor of Light. I knew from Pray the Devil that if you're patient and really do the work of making sure it gets to the audiences that need to see it, it can make a long-term change. So we're working on Bible studies and seminaries, getting to pastors and ministers. Changing guns in America is going to involve big, deep, slow change. I'm trying to thoughtfully pick my way through to what might be the next thing I do. I'm not sure what the idea is yet, but this is not an issue I’ll ever walk away from.

You executive-produced The Invisible War [2012], about sexual assault in the military.

I wrote my dissertation on war novels. I have this obsession with violence—I don't understand why it's attractive, why it's romanticized and even sexualized. So war novels were a great way to parse that. I feel like a scientist trying to take something apart to understand it. One of the things I started hearing when I was working with military people was the amount of sexual violence against women in the military. It made sense to me when I thought about it, because there is something connecting sex and that uniform. It goes from the beginning of warfare [up to] now, and it's a very important piece of the puzzle. So when I started hearing that, I just thought about the incredible betrayal that it represented: that you went into battle with someone as a peer and yet they saw it necessary to sexually assault you. The betrayal of it was so deep and awful that when Kirby [Dick] and Amy [Ziering] came to me, I was like, "Yes, where do I sign up?" It was so important.

Tell me about Women, War & Peace II. One film in the series is titled The Trials of Spring [Dir.: Gini Reticker, 2015], described as "the stories of nine women on the front lines of change in the Middle East-North Africa region."

An Iraqi woman named Zainab Salbi, who has run Women for Women International for years, said there were so many stories about the Arab Spring that women are part of, yet once again, right here in real time, we're watching them just get written out of the story. It's important to tell them while they were fresh. So we did six short films and then a feature film about Egypt. We need to replace women from anonymity and resituate them in the main narrative where they belong.

Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs, about the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, is another film in the series. I've wanted to do a Northern Ireland film for so long because I spend a lot of time in Ireland and it's very close to my heart. The film does a good job of showing you what it's like to have everyone tell you that you're being ridiculous, ugly, humorless and bitter, yet these women just kept right on coming. Every time one of them got up to speak publicly, the men would moo like cows. These were men who fought for decades against each other, but this they could agree on!

Other films in the series are Peacekeeper, about a female Bangladeshi police force sent to Haiti after the earthquake; and Naila's Uprising, about Palestinian women in the first Intifada against Israeli oppression, which began as a nonviolent Intifada until the men came back.

Which documentary that you have been involved in has had the biggest impact?

Pray the Devil Back to Hell, by far. I can't even begin to tell you how. I got an interview with the president of the board of the NRA because his wife liked the film. Most of the material that I got for Armor of Light with evangelical Christians was because of the way they embraced that earlier film. Pray the Devil got out so far past the usual documentary circles, it's impossible to express. I've had emails from women who said they saw it in high school and become journalists because of it, went to work for the UN because of it. I've been to 82 countries around the world where it's shown. I got sent a series of photos from a complete stranger about a conflict that I didn't even know about in southern Senegal, where the women occupied the mayor's office all dressed in white because they'd seen Pray the Devil. I'm glad this film has managed to make a dent in the perception of whether or not women are effective at making peace. It's changed a lot of men's minds too. We had a guy in the Congo come up to us and say at a screening, "I never really thought women could do anything, but now I've changed my mind."

Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.

Amicus Award Honorees

1993: John Hendricks/Discovery Communications
1997: Steven Spielberg/Survivors of the Shoah History Foundation
2009: Michael C. Donaldson
2013: Geralyn Dreyfous
2015: Tony Tabatznik and the Bertha Foundation
2016: Lyn and Norman Lear