Abigail Disney: Feminist Changer, Feminist Changed

Screenshot from a Facebook discussion: Abigail Disney, left, with Rev. Rob Schenck, right, on the release of his book, Costly Grace.

An email arrived from Fork Films. Who can open and read the mountainous volume of emails one receives these days? This one, however, I opened.

There was Abigail Disney sitting with Rev. Rob Schenck. He is the center point of her own first directed film, The Armour of Light, released in 2015. In the process of making the film, the arch-conservative preacher wrestled with his position on guns, and came to the conclusion that gun use was contradictory to his position on right to life. He has now formed The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute to combat present social crises. The current special focus of the Institute is on gun violence in the U.S. from a Christian, ethical perspective. Abigail Disney, filmmaker, activist and philanthropist, is a Governor on his Board of Directors.

Abigail Disney, also a mother and wife, and a beacon of ever-evolving feminist consciousness, is prepared for action. Unafraid to tackle difficult issues – she was a major advocate against the Trump tax bill, despite the huge gains she would personally receive. The Disney heiress has metamorphosed into a principled actor on behalf of the issues that concern her: peace and social justice. Evolution is her forte. While she comes from a major U.S. media family, she did not set out to become a media maker herself.

In May 2008, Abigail wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about how she came to produce the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The story focuses on the women’s movement for peace in Liberia and its impact on ending fifteen years of war in the country.  In the post, Abigail questions why the mainstream media has been so absent on the job of covering these critical events involving women’s leadership. She wrote: “How was it possible that these Liberian women had accomplished such an enormous feat without having been noticed and reported on by the news outlets I had come to know and trust?”

Her partner in founding Fork Films, Gini Reticker, and director of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, before an audience at the Brooklyn Museum, described early pre-production research on the film. She screened over 80 hours of news footage that captured only a glimpse of the women who daily led peace protests: “I had journalists say to me: ‘I saw the women on the field. But they were so pitiful looking that I didn’t film them,’Reticker recounted. In contrast, boys captured and forced into a warring militia, clutching AK47s, are glorified in hours of footage. I have written before about this egregious gender bias within mainstream media.

One of the key leaders among the Christian and Muslim women who banded together for peace in Liberia is Leymeh Gbowee. Her experience anchors the film. Through the many awards Pray the Devil Back to Hell won and speaking opportunities, Gbowee became widely know in peace circles. The film has had a lasting impact which she believes can inspire more women. Gwobe writes: “This documentary is like a landmark or something that tells other women, ‘People did it before we came, we’ve done it, and they can also do it. It is not a fluke. It can happen. People just need to rise up and rise above the politics that so deeply divide us as women.”

Pre-dawn on a brisk October day in 2011 the Disney-Hauser household was bubbling with excitement. A teenage daughter of Leymeh Gbowee was living with Abigail’s family and attending school in the U.S.  Leymeh Gbowee, too, was in New York promoting her newly released book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. News from Oslo swarmed across the Atlantic before first light, announcing that Leymeh Gbowee was one of three women to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The film Disney had produced three years earlier, her first venture in movie making, had given an international stage to the women’s peace efforts in Liberia. The power of film had an indelible effect.

During this same Fall, 2011, Disney and Reticker teamed up with WNET to create a five-part series, Women, War and Peace, for PBS. At the time, Donna Williams, Senior Publicist for WNET declared, “This series is rare in that it puts women at the center of an analysis of conflict and peace.” The five videos from 2011 can be viewed online.

Vessel, a film about the stellar work of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts and her Women On Waves program that brings abortion services across the high seas, is another important work that Abigail Disney has helped deliver to the film world.  Director Diana Whitten in August 2011 joyously wrote me: “Some exciting news! Abby Disney has joined the Vessel crew as Executive Producer!”  Having a dedicated producer is key for successful film completion, and I was thrilled to see Abigail stepping into such a role in advancing other women’s films.

Official funding is listed as 2013 for VESSEL. By 2013, Fork Films had already supported over a dozen films. A more formalized funding program from Fork Films emerged around the time that VESSEL was released in 2014. Another forty films are featured that have been funded through Fork Film since 2013. All totalled, the company states it has “supported nearly 90 documentaries that support peace and social justice.”  Among the list are highly acclaimed works including Cameraperson, Strong Island, and Roll Red Roll. Grants range from $10,000 to $50,000. The next grant deadline will be in the Fall of 2018.

Ninety productions in less than a decade is a sizable collection of works by women supported by one entity. When you leave the darkness of the screening room, you can see that Abigail Disney is on the move, again. She is not resting on these laurels. In late May, she was a speaker on a recent panel about Violence Against Women at the Women+Money Summit organized by the Women’s Funding Network.

Earlier this month she was again with Rev. Rob Schenck, this time at Harper Collins in New York for the release of his book, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love. In promoting the book, they spent an hour via his Facebook page discussing its content, their friendship and work together. He read from the acknowledgments: “Finally, it was Abby Disney who first prompted me to write this book, then nudged me until I had unstoppable momentum. Abby was the angel behind this undertaking.“

They described their first meeting. Disney voiced, “I was looking for someone who was politically different from me in every conceivable way to try to make common cause. I hoped to take the discussion of gun ownership in America back to its roots and talk about it from a moral, ethical and religious standpoint. Who I met instead of a fire-eating dragon was a menschy guy.” The common thread was that they both “crossed over.” Disney’s family was conservative. Schenck’s family of origin was liberal. So, as Disney underscored, “We are both bilingual. That is what this book is about.”

Schenck went on to describe how his work became over-framed by politics and that he lost his spiritual compass. A whole chapter of the book deals with how Evangelicals made a deal with Donald Trump and lost their moral compass. Later, in discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a crisis in the church in Germany in the early 30s, Schenck discussed how Evangelicals had made a deal with Hitler.

Both Disney and Schenck delved into the conundrum of making people mad as hornets in their different worlds. Disney asked, “How do we reach out to them? How do we help them get past their anger…….not only for the people who are angry with us, but the people who we are angry with.”

“Change is hard for all of us….you’ve changed more than I have. I feel guilty about it sometimes.” Disney prefaced as she asked Rev. Schenck a final question. I queried her further on this and she responded: “Yes, for sure, I truly have changed through the meta-partisan work. It’s made me more kind, it’s made me more prone to approach issues with love instead of hostility, and it has widened my networks and spheres of influence. It’s been nothing but good!”

Watch out. Abigail Disney is on the move. Stretching her own mind and moral compass, lifting the minds and experiences of others as a part of her own expanding experiences. Focusing on common cause, she may just be changing more than she knows. And, as I suspected, she assured me she does have “a glimmer” of a new film bubbling up,“But, I can’t talk about it yet.”

ARIEL’S PITCH: Support independent women’s narrative filmmaking with your dollars. A feature, By Now I’ve Lived A Thousand Lives and None of Them Are Mine, is directed by Britni West. Regional filmmaking is vital to cultural diversity. She has $13,000 more to raise by July 20 in Kickstarters’ “all-or-nothing” process. Over on Indiegogo, is Wonderland, a comedy written by and starring Yetide Badaki. Directed by Jessica Sherif, Zodwa, like Alice, stumbles through the looking glass into Hollywood. Will she survive the madness? Only if you assist to raise the remaining $8,400 by July 9th.

Related:

Confidence is Key: Female Filmmakers Discuss How to Get Financing

How NoVo is Spreading Radical Hope in Africa and Beyond

Where’s the Dough for Women in Film? Ariel Dougherty Surveys the Scene

Author: Ariel Dougherty

Ariel Dougherty is a teacher, filmmaker, producer and mentor for women directed media/culture of all stripes. SWEET BANANAS (director, 1973) and !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION (Producer, 2010) are among the hundreds films she has worked on. She writes at the intersections of women-identified media, especially film production, women's human rights, and funding for film. Currently, she is working on a book entitled Feminist Filmmaking Within Communities.

Leave a Reply