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Conversations
1 July 2012

Abigail Disney is a filmmaker philanthropist

Interview by Sofija Stefanovic
Photography by Davi Russo

Sofija Stefanovic on Abigail Disney

I was nervous about meeting Abigail Disney. For one thing, she carries the name of the Disney empire, whose loyal subject I have been since toddlerhood. She is also a ‘do-gooder’, who devotes herself to charities and peacebuilding in warzones. Her documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which tells the story of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, has become a powerful tool to mobilise African women in peacebuilding and conflict resolution, and may have been instrumental in leader Leymah Gbowee’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. To top it off, she’s a documentary filmmaker, a mother of four, and she holds a PhD in literature.

But this is our second Skype date and my feelings of inadequacy are long gone. I don’t even bother to kick the two sleeping dogs off my lap to simulate professionalism. I hear Abigail’s voice first; she hasn’t turned the camera on. She speaks fast and sounds a touch overwhelmed, with a note of laughter coming through. It’s 10pm New York time, and there’s a lot of action I can’t see. I hear red-faced kids bashing about at the end of a summer’s day. ‘Sorry Eamon, sorry guys, I need this room.’ Tonight, Abigail’s got two extras, children of Liberian friends.

With a warning of, ‘I look like hell,’ Abigail turns her camera on. She’s in her bedroom. We stay here long enough for me to admire the painting behind her, layers upon layers of white paint. Then the internet connection is lost.

She reappears several minutes later. She seems to be in a cupboard, surrounded by coats. ‘No, I’m on the floor at the entrance of the house. This is often where I find myself. In life,’ she laughs.

Each time someone passes, Abigail turns the computer on them. ‘This is Sofija, in Australia. Say hi.’ Abigail is capable of stopping mid-complex-thought, having an exchange about teeth-brushing with a child, and finishing her sentence, as if the small boy in pyjamas who just said goodnight was a figment of my imagination.

As we settle into our hallway chat, Abigail’s daughter Olivia and her friend try to sneak out with a bottle of wine. They have to hop over Abigail. ‘Now you see what a permissive mother I am,’ she sighs. Then Banksy starts barking. Abigail tries to grab the dog, unaware that pandemonium is about to occur—because here in Melbourne, my two mutts spring to alertness. They answer Banksy’s call and suddenly, three dogs are barking wholeheartedly and we can’t hear each other anymore. Our interview continues in this funny, punctuated way.

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

Sofija Stefanovic: I loved Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Abigail Disney: Oh, thanks.

It was fantastic and I really appreciate how hard it was to make that film.

You know, at that point I was doing a lot of work in philanthropy and on foundation boards. We were in Liberia and saw the work that they’d done, and what they’d been through, and this stupid, stupid behaviour of war, and what it does to people’s lives. So we made Pray the Devil Back to Hell when we got back. It was my first film. I was forty-seven.

Which is interesting because your family is kind of… in that business. But you resisted it for forty-seven years?

did resist it. Partly because I grew up in LA and I’m not thrilled with the community of filmmakers there. So it was really wonderful for me to go back to film because of the path I’d taken away from it, rather than just jumping right into it. And I don’t know that I would’ve had a lot to say if I’d jumped right into it.

In Pray the Devil Back to Hell, you film some amazing, fascinating women. And actually, Leymah Gbowee received a Nobel prize. Do you think she would have, had she not come to prominence through your film?

I mean, it sounds so conceited to say so, but: no. And she’ll say that too. And the people on the committee said that to me as well. But the great thing about the film is, it lets Leymah be Leymah and she so clearly comes through.

Leymah and the other women in your film played a large part in Charles Taylor finally falling from power. What’s going on with him now?

He just got sentenced to fifty years. Which is, I don’t know. A light sentence. They really should have sent a message. I mean, you have a verdict that takes three hours to read, because there are so many charges he’s been found guilty of. How much is each of the lives he’s responsible for ending worth? I find that a strange sentence.

A three hundred year sentence would be totally appropriate, you know. Several consecutive life sentences. So he’ll be in jail, I guess in the Hague. Which is another thing that is interesting, because why wouldn’t he be in jail in Liberia, why wouldn’t he be in jail in Sierra Leone?

That’s what I was thinking. I’d assume that they’d put him in jail in Liberia or Sierra Leone. Why would he stay there?

I don’t know. Because, you know, arguably life in jail in the Hague is better than it is for fifty per cent of the Liberians. He’s gonna get three squares a day and a stable place to sleep and physical security, It’s hard to see how he’s appropriately being punished. Although I would never argue for torture or inhuman conditions. I don’t know what’s right, but this just doesn’t feel like enough.

Well, Slobodan Milosevic died in that jail, but apparently, it was quite a good one. And he was getting lots of medications and things like that, and special food.

Exactly. But I actually decided to make myself feel better by remembering that what they do to them in the Hague is bore them to death. And for a warlord to be cooped up like that and unable to bribe people or kill people, that’s probably torture on its own.

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

I’m interested in your work with war. I’m Serbian, so the reason that I’m here in Australia, is because of the war that we had in my country… I read this article about you called ‘Abigail Disney isn’t interested in Cinderella stories’, about how you grew up with Disney—the ultimate fantasy which is all about making dreams come true—but you went a different way. Tell me if you think that this is ridiculous, but to me, it’s almost like you are following that path of ‘dreams come true’ because you are searching for happy endings and you are searching to help people throughout the world.

I do think that in some very essential way, I am doing what my grandfather taught me. Now my grandfather, let me be clear wasn’t Walt, he was Roy, he was Walt’s brother—

He built Disney World!

They started Disney together—yeah, he built Disney World. He used to say, ‘It’s not hard to know what decisions to make if you know what your values are’. He was a really decent, humble man from very humble roots and he had a very strong sense of how people were meant to live their lives. So yeah, it’s so interesting—this happens to a lot of people in a lot of families—where you go away, and try to be as different as possible, then you find yourself right back where you started, and that’s clearly what happened to me.

And when Pray opened at TriBeCa, it was the first time I’d seen it in a really big audience and the reaction was so positive. Cause the film really makes you feel so able to do things, and I looked at Gini Reticker, my filmmaking partner and I said, ‘Oh my god, we made a Disney movie!’ [Laughs] I’ll never forget that moment. It really is a Disney movie in a lot of important ways.

When did you first get a sense that there was unfairness in the world?

I was a bit of a crusader-type person. You know, structurally. So I did a lot of volunteering when I was a kid. The hospital, and raising money for things. So I kind of had a reflex for that kind of thing. It came naturally to me. But you know, honestly, I lived in a pretty constrained world. I was protected, I think, to my detriment. And so not until I went to college did I develop anything like a political consciousness. The environment I was raised in was very conservative politically. Very conservative. And I knew that that wasn’t feeling right to me, but I couldn’t’ find words or language for it until I got to college.

So when you were little, were you the kid when some other kid gets bullied, you stand up for them? Was that you?

Well, I will tell you that I would lurch wildly back and forth between two completely opposite poles.

I did stick up for kids. But I would stick up for kids by punching other kids.

[laughs]

I see.

And I was famous in the second grade for giving a girl a bloody nose. Because she was giving a friend of mine a hard time. So, I was a little bit both. You know, I think that’s actually common in the world of people who are ‘do-gooders’. There’s a streak of being a bossy person that’s mixed together with being an empathic person. And I don’t know that people in the world of do-gooding are well-self-examined people. And that they really spend much time unpacking some of the ways in which they’re a little coercive about the good they want to do in the world.

But you know, in the end, justice was served, and the bad girl got the bloody nose.

I don’t know if bloody nose girl would agree with you! I do know that the nun who ran the school pinned a note to my pinafore and sent me home with that, and my brothers were so proud.

Tell me about leaving LA.

Everyone in our world in Los Angeles had an ambition to be in the business, or was in the business…They talk about who has gone from this job to that job and who’s got a screenplay in the works and everybody loves being an insider and knowing about something before everyone else, it’s like a contest…and it’s all for what? You know, dreck and time wastage and brain erosion and the rest of it, it’s just, it’s appalling. So anyway, I’m on my high horse now and I should get off of it.

So…you were a little bit sick of having your brain eroded?

[Laughs] Yes! I think it was being eroded. I mean I will say that the big high school crush that I had and—there are lovely people in Los Angeles, I don’t want to knock a whole city—but when I got into Yale, which was like—that’s as good as it gets man, that’s really good news—he said, ‘Why would you want to go to Yale? Everyone will be ugly and you won’t have any fun’.

Wow.

So that’s an example of why I wanted to leave LA. It was not my world. And I came here to New York and I made a world that I loved and I really didn’t want to go back to that world.

So you went to Yale.

So I went to Yale. Which was a whole other planet. And it happened to be the planet that I was from. So, it was the mother planet. That changed my world and my life and just opened my heart up to all sorts of different possibilities and ways of mattering as a person. It was a very hospitable, good place. I happened to also meet my husband there, to whom I’ve been married since 1979, so I’m a lucky girl.

You stayed in New York after your PhD?

We decided to stay here and that was how I found philanthropy. I needed something that was challenging for my mind and I needed to learn and I needed to be in an environment that was lively and interesting, so I got engaged. I started doing volunteer work and I started sitting on boards and visiting programs around the city. And luckily, I live in this city where there is an incredibly rich civic life. I mean, there are little tiny non-profits in every nook and cranny of this city! I always think of it as when Dorothy gets to Oz. And she’s in the Munchkin Land and they feel safe so they start popping up, and they turn out to have been in the flowers and under the pots all along. Once you develop the eyes to see this stuff, it is everywhere. Our city is unbelievable that way. People see a problem and they start an organisation, just like that. So, I got to know who those people were and why they do what they do, and why I love and respect and admire them so much. That was the great gift of my life. It was lucky that I was home with my kids and I felt restrained by them from travelling. And I could improvise a life around their needs. That was really lucky. Again, that’s the kind of thing that privilege buys you that it doesn’t buy most people.

Tell me more about privilege.

I believe firmly that privilege is a very toxic thing. It’s a very crazy-making thing. And from a distance, from the outside, it looks like it solves all your problems. Money looks like it’s the answer to everything. And position, class, education and all those things. Yet I don’t know a lot of people who are born into privileged circumstances that are very happy.

I think that privilege and wealth, and particularly material wealth, mimic the dynamics of addiction.

So if you think about the way addiction works, let’s say I’m sad, or socially awkward or whatever it is, and I drink, and I feel something delivered to me that I want, right?

Right.

A feeling. That this thing gives me. And so, as I move into addiction, I’m trying to replicate that feeling. I’m trying to recover a sense that I had of myself that first time. And you can’t not drink, because you’re trying to get there, but it gets further and further away from you. And that is how materialism tends to operate. You bought your first thing, it made you happy, you buy another thing, you buy another thing and then you find yourself—it’s the classic Citizen Kane story—you find yourself surrounded by opulence and really good things, and you’re empty and you have no human connections and your emotional life is dead and there’s nothing there.

And how do you avoid that? How do you avoid that?

There’s no point at which I’ll ever feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m safe, I’m gonna be alright’, you know? But I do know that at least today, things are good. I have a loving, happy family and everybody’s alright.

Yeah.

I have so many better things to do, and people to be with, and ideas to think about. And that’s what saved me from that dynamic. I found a use for the money that was so much richer and more rewarding, that it just kind of broke that dynamic for me.

And what was the use for the money?

Charity, philantropy, whatever you want to call it. But using it to find a useful place for myself in the world, to find a way to matter outside of my own little 360-degree space. And to genuinely change other people’s lives—the trajectory of their lives.

In your work, it seems like you’re trying to heal the split between injustice and privilege. So you work with people who have had great injustice done to them.

I think I’ve always been drawn to people who are either ignored, or looked down upon or really frowned on…Those are the places that just interest me most. I’m sure there’s a part of my psychobiography that would explain that, but the thing is—this is all sounding like something from some incredibly cheap dimestore self-help book, but it’s really the truth—when I let go of trying to heal myself, and I just reached out and tried to help other people, that was when the healing rushed into my heart. And I thought, Oh, so when I pull on this string, something good happens!, so I just kept doing it. And that’s been the dynamic of my life.

You have said, ‘When you strengthen women, you strengthen the world’. Are you out to strengthen the world?

[Laughs] Absolutely, yes! And you know I have worked with women and women’s issues for twenty years now. And I’ve never seen a moment where we’ve had so much of the wind at our backs. It’s really incredible, there’s a lot of energy and emotion in this space and what’s cool about it is there are more and more men stepping up and saying exactly that. It’s a kind of exciting moment.

It is! And you’re very confident—

[Laughs] Ha, yeah.

—about your work. Why do you think that is?

Um, well, partly cause I’m not at all as confident as I seem. So, it’s a fiction and I’m just as scared as everyone else, I just happen to seem like I am confident.

You’re just bluffing?

Yeah, I mean, I think, I’ve been lucky in being very resilient in my life, and I tend to be attracted to things that make me stronger. And that’s a really lucky break for me, I’m really glad that that is my inclination in life.

I have always believed that people who accomplish great things, they’re not people who never feel fear, they feel fear, they just go forward into it, instead of away from it. And they learn how to live in fear, and function.

And so I force myself to, for instance be a public speaker and I force myself to learn to love fear. And that’s how I’ve conducted my life. Inhabiting fear, and being all right with it, and seeing it as a sign that I’m probably in a good place.

Because you push yourself into horrible places. You could be Paris Hilton, but you could also just have a medium kind of life—

Yes! [laughing]

But instead, you go to places where people have been raped and tortured: you do the worst. You don’t do a bit of fear here, and a bit of public speaking there!

Yeah. No, it’s true and I … I don’t know. I think maybe I am unreasonably…safe. Maybe I have no reason to feel this good. I just think: if I’m gonna get killed, you know, it could happen tomorrow, or it could happen fifty years from now, I would just as soon know I was doing my best. So I kind of want to treat every day like that … I can’t tell you why I do what I do, but there’s probably a psychiatrist who could tell you more about it than I can!

I have my limits while the kids are still young. I mean, Eamon is only twelve. So I don’t want to get kidnapped in Afghanistan quite yet! [Laughs]

Yeah, but you’re still kinda brave.

[Both laugh.]

I said to my husband, the night before my first trip to Liberia that maybe I shouldn’t go. I said, ‘There’s gonna be a thing that I see, and it’s just gonna bum me out and then how am I supposed to take the kids to school and do the bake sales and all the trivial stuff I do? And it’ll create a debt! It’ll create an obligation in me. And then what? How am I supposed to do that? I’m already too busy!’ And he said: ‘Go. You’ve gotta go straight at your fear.’ And I went. And, yes, that’s exactly what happened. I saw stuff, it created a debt in me and it’s the best thing that ever happened.

It’s made you better because you pushed yourself.

Yeah. And I heard a story, and that story became the film [Pray the Devil Back to Hell]. It did create a debt. I had to tell that story. And there were bummer things that I saw, that I will not get out of my head any time soon. But, you know, that’s all just fuel. You’ve got to go forward.

You describe yourself as a happy person. These days, in culture and on TV, people really equate happiness with privilege. But you have a weird, old-fashioned Greek thing going on. It seems that you’re following the idea that happiness comes through knowledge and justice.

[Laughs] If you watch the television shows about wealthy people, you’ll see there’s this great game of shaudenfreude going on in the media. Because there’s just this glee in watching Kim Kardashian’s marriage fall apart, in watching Paris Hilton fall from grace, in watching one person after another suffer enormously. I think in people’s hearts they understand that this thing that everybody is chasing is a distraction from the real things that are gonna make you happy. And the more of it that some people have, the further distracted they become from finding the things that will really fill their hearts up.

Yeah.

I get annoyed when I watch television and I see Kim Kardashian. She drives me out of my mind, Paris Hilton drives me out of my mind, because I wanna put them over my knee and spank them! [laughs]

Because they’re just so foolishly squandering what they’ve been given. But I know in my heart that they are more miserable in their hearts than they could ever, ever make me. Because I know what they’re suffering. When they try to go to sleep at night and try to really make sense of their lives [she shrugs] I know they’re unhappy. It’s not a happy thing to be empty.

And what makes you happy? Am I just saying that, or has it got to do with justice?

No, I’m more, it’s not so much the Greeks as EM Forster, who said: ‘Only connect’. My life is connected. I’m a horizontal person. I am connected to so many extraordinary people, my family, my children, my husband, everybody. The connectedness that I feel is what I love the most. The idea that I am just a spider web. That I am at the centre of this web of relationships and each person next to me is at the centre of their web of relationships and we’re all interwoven. Nothing could make me more happy.

On to your particular interests…What does war mean to you?

[Laughs.]

Just thought I’d brighten things up.

We’ve talked about happiness enough, let’s talk about war! When I was in graduate school and I was trying to figure out my dissertation, I had this idea that I wanted to write about American literature by men in the twentieth century, which is totally about manhood. Why is this the way we define being a man, and why is it central to having a life with meaning?

I realised there was an enormous difference between people who wrote about war who had actually been there and this other class of people who would write a war novel that was incredibly convincing, who had never fought. And I thought, Well that’s a really interesting thing. Why would somebody imagine themselves all the way into this horrific place? What is it that attracts them? So that wound up being my dissertation: historical war novels. It was fascinating that this thing that is so mad—two groups of men basically shooting at each other—it’s so, fundamentally a bad idea, that it’s almost ridiculous to point that out. And yet, it is such an aesthetically-compelling notion, that for thousands of years, we haven’t been able to resist the temptation to do it.

Why?

[Makes exasperated noise] Well, that’s, I mean, if I had the answer to that, I’d run for office. I don’t know why! And I started that dissertation more than twenty years ago, and I still read books, and I still think about it all the time. I still have not figured out why everybody thinks this is the best way to solve a problem.

Is it a man thing?

Ugh, well. That’s a really important question. Because, we can’t pretend that for thousands of years, war hasn’t been what men do. Or not so much what men do, as done by men. It’s very important to make that distinction. Because not all men do it, not all men are attracted to it. But, it’s generally, mostly done by men. The correlation to that—

[Her son Eamon appears, to be kissed goodnight.]

I love you sweetie. See you in the morning.

—The correlation to that is that there’s this other population, that hasn’t been doing it—other than as cheerleaders or people on the sidelines. So this is a really important distinction between the genders.

And I’m still trying to think of another cultural phenomenon that has been this pervasive through the centuries and millennia that is this gendered. I mean, cooking isn’t this gendered. If it’s not biological, I can’t think of any activity that is more gendered.

But when I go around talking about women and war, I invariably get the pushback that Margaret Thatcher took everybody to war and Golda Meyer was not hesitant. And there’s generally a group of women that get named in every place. But if you can name the same seven women in every room, then that’s the seven women. And doesn’t the exception prove the rule?

There are plenty of women who will go fight, but let’s be real about what the numbers are. And let’s be clear that for millennia, women have been put in charge of taking care of the young, educating, taking care of the house, finding the food, finding the water, keeping everyone clean, keeping everyone healthy, taking care of the old people. And I can’t think of a word to describe this set of occupations, but ‘life’. These are the jobs of living. They are also the jobs that are the same no matter where you go. And it’s one of the reasons that women really relate across cultures. Because wiping a baby’s butt and sweeping the floor and getting your hand burned on a hot pot is the same thing, whether you’re in Bosnia or Kenya. We are preoccupied with the doings of life, as women. So we are therefore, I think, invested in peace in a really important way, because we need peace as a precondition to succeed at these things that we do.

Right.

When there is a war, all these things become problematic, and get disrupted in ways that are really fundamental. So, I really do believe that we have a special relationship to peace that might be biological, that might be social, I don’t know. And I don’t know that finding the answer to that question necessarily matters.

And men have, historically walked away from those occupations to do other things that are separate from the body of relationships that we have. And I think that they therefore get removed emotionally from why peace matters.

There are fewer women in the directors’ guild today, than there were twenty years ago. So there’s no guarantee that this is a forward line that we all just move toward power and equality, relentlessly.
Abigail Disney

Where do women stand today, and how powerful are they?

Twenty-plus years ago, when I started doing the work I’ve been doing, there was almost amusement at the idea that women could marshal their money and resources and really change communities. And now I see that in the international community it’s kind of a given, that we need to bring women in and we need to hear from them.

But when you’re talking about bringing a group in, you sort of forget that your conception is that there’s an in and there’s an out. There’s a high-power group and there’s a low-power group.

So already, in the way you’ve conceptually framed this thing, you’ve conceded that we still have this deficit to overcome in terms of power. We have women in the international community who are highly placed in the UN. Highly placed in governments. We have women judges, and women lawyers and women doctors. These are all really important elements. But women are still treated incredibly poorly in the media. Creative jobs in Hollywood are still five to one male. And—this is an interesting statistic—the speaking parts in Hollywood films are still three to one male.

Really? Wow!

And that ratio has not changed since 1946.

Wow! I had no idea!

Exactly. And there are fewer women in the directors’ guild today, than there were twenty years ago. So there’s no guarantee that this is a forward line that we all just move toward power and equality, relentlessly. It’s not a logical historical movement. It has to be pushed on. It has to be hurried. And it slides backward. Now we’ll be Greek. This is Sisyphus. We are pushing a boulder up a hill, and when we take our hands off it, it does always roll back.

In the same vein… Personally to you, what does peace look like?

I think everybody has an idea of peace that’s sort of like bluebirds fluttering in the air and butterflies landing on your fingertips, and fairies and pixie dust. But, you know, peace may look like what the Middle East looks like today. Peace may look like a state of constant tension and anxiety and the edge of war. Where everybody is constantly in negotiations to stop the next war from happening. So I think that we need to think of peace as a verb. Peace as something you are actively making all the time. And that’s why Leymah and the women in Liberia call themselves peacebuilders.

Going about the business of building peace, many, many years before the tanks even get rolled off the army bases, that is when you build peace. So, for me, peace looks like work. It looks like the work of our lives. The raising of good kids, the creating of beautiful education systems that really think about the whole person, the keeping honest of our politicians and our governments by all sorts of mechanisms, active civic life and journalism and all these things. These are all the different components, the bricks in the wall that make for peacebuilding.

And where are some good working examples of peace, as a process, in the world?

Hm. That’s a really good question. The thing is that peace doesn’t call attention to itself. Even if it’s loud! And so, you know, it’s hard to report on this.

Yeah, you don’t see many news articles about peace.

‘Everything’s fine in Botswana!’ [laughs] Everything is fine in Botswana. These people have been blessed with incredible riches: diamonds. There was every possiblity that they could go down the same rabbit hole everybody else went down. But good governments and a responsible constitution, and a real ethic of obligation has created a relatively stable and high-functioning government there. Is it perfect? No. It’s not perfect. Their indigenous people are being treated really poorly. But in terms of sharing the diamond wealth, yes. Botswana is a pretty great example and there they are, right next to Zimbabwe, which is the poster child for dysfunction.

So, it is possible to find those examples. Ghana, god hopes, will do a different thing with the oil that they found in the last few years than Nigeria has. And all indications are that Ghana has proceeded in a different way and will be on a different course in terms of doing the right things with those revenues. So that’s another example of it. In terms of post-conflict peace…Burundi is the inverse of Rwanda in terms of the ethnic arrangement. And there was a lot of violence around the same time that Rwanda devolved into the horrible holocaust that it did. There was a lot of violence, but it never devolved the way Rwanda did. In part because there were really active efforts made, both by the international community and by civil society inside of Burundi to ensure it never devolved.

The problem with peace is, we are very inarticulate about it. Family therapists always talk about divorce. They talk about breakdowns in families and they’re very articulate and they can describe that to the nth degree. But it’s only in the last ten years that they’ve realised that they have to have an equally detailed and nuanced idea of what a happy family looks like. Because it’s not just the opposite of a divorce. And that’s the way we treat peace at this point. We just presume that it’s the opposite of war and it’s not. It’s a positive, describable state that we can make a conscious effort to build toward, and that needs to be the work of our lives.

Sofija Stefanovic

Sofija is a Dumbo Feather contributor who’s interviewed the likes of Julian BurnsideAkram Khan and Abigail Disney. She lives in New York. She is writing a memoir called Miss ex-Yugoslavia (Penguin, 2018). She also hosts the literary salon Women of Letters in New York City.

Photography by Davi Russo

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