About two decades ago, filmmakers Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney began searching for footage for a film on women in Liberia’s civil war.
Peace activist Leymah Gbowee had led a two-year sit-in in a field, they heard. She later barricaded warlords into their hotel conference center, demanding a peace deal. The women’s story had never been fully told.
But immediately, the filmmakers faced a significant challenge. All the footage from the war showed the same type of images: preteen boys with assault rifles and dreadlocks, bandanas around their young foreheads, sleeveless T-shirts stained with blood. The violence of the Liberian war had been extensively reported on. But no journalist had focused exclusively on the women’s peace groups.
“They were invisible,” Disney says. “Finding any footage of women doing anything more than suffering—it just didn’t exist. And journalists said, ‘Oh, we saw the women on the field, but they weren’t interesting so we didn’t film it.’” Like a puzzle pieced together from scraps on the cutting room floor, they used every shot in the archives with a woman in it, and filmed their own, and in 2008 premiered Pray the Devil Back to Hell at the Tribeca Film Festival.
It would eventually be viewed by 13 million people, on all seven continents, and be shortlisted for an Academy Award. Many say it led to activist Gbowee’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
And for Reticker and Disney, the huge public reaction raised deeper questions. Why did so few war documentaries put women at the heart of the story—not as victims, but as active agents key to ending the conflict? Disney, who had studied literature, recognized that this tradition of ignoring women dates back to one of the earliest known examples of Western literature, The Iliad. “Cassandra is there, before the war starts out, saying, ‘This is a terrible idea,’” Disney says. “And people are saying, ‘Oh you’re crazy. Don’t pay attention to her.’ How many women get dismissed and dismissed when talking about something that is in front of their face and factually accurate?”
Pray the Devil Back to Hell aired as part of a 2011 series on PBS that focused on women, war and peace. Now, Disney and Reticker are releasing a second series that follows women peace activists in Egypt, Haiti, Palestine and Northern Ireland.
“What’s changed in a decade?” I asked the filmmakers. There’s a long pause.
“I’m hopeful,” Reticker says. “I do think more people are recognizing the critical role women play.”
Disney agrees. “So it’s not zero awareness the way it used to be, but we’re damn close to zero,” she says. “And it fascinates me how close to zero we are because they’re fascinating stories to tell, and the rational thing is for journalists to go out there and tell interesting stories. And yet they leave these fascinating stories on the table.”
While women played a significant role in the Colombian peace process from 2013 to 2015, the area of conflict and resolution is still mostly a man’s world. When women do try and break in—for example, activist Christine Ahn and her organization, Women Cross DMZ, which advocates for a permanent peace treaty on the Korean peninsula—they’re too often dismissed or just ignored altogether.
Documentaries on women can shatter the silence that works to enforce these taboos. In northern Iraq, the film Handful of Ash ended the secrecy around female genital mutilation (FGM). The filmmakers, Nabaz Ahmed and Shara Amin, spent a decade capturing evidence to refute those who said FGM didn’t happen in Iraq. Shortly after the film showed in the Kurdistan Parliament, the resulting outrage led to the passage of a law that made FGM illegal. Likewise, a U.S. documentary, The Hunting Ground, evidenced widespread sexual assault on U.S. college campuses and the poor response by college administrators. That documentary has been screened on more than 1,000 campuses countrywide, and many credit the film with forcing administrators to take seriously accusations of rape.
But there’s still work to be done to increase women’s contribution and visibility in peacekeeping and conflict resolution. Despite overwhelming evidence that women’s presence decreases the likelihood of clashes between police and communities and can help reduce violence against women, less than 13 percent of U.S. law enforcement personnel are women. Women are still underrepresented in peace negotiations, with less than 4 percent of signatories of peace agreements being women, according to a study that examined peace deals through 2011. Women have never made up more than 20 percent of the U.S. Congress, which debates how to prioritize military expenditures over diplomacy. And we have a president who has appointed fewer women to his Cabinet and to Cabinet-level positions than any administration since George W. Bush.
What’s interesting about Disney and Reticker’s new collection of documentaries is that, while they do inspire and champion women’s voices, they don’t heroify them. The challenges that remain are painfully clear.
The Trials of Spring tells the story of a young Egyptian woman who travels to Cairo to take part in the 2011 revolution. While women were integral to the uprising, the film shows how sexual assault soon became prevalent in the chaos of the protests, perpetuated by both the left and the right.
In A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers, about a troop of Bangladeshi women who recently spent a year as U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti, the peacekeepers were clearly better able to connect with women in the community, and they did not escalate tensions with violence, but they also struggled with being relevant in Port-au-Prince. Their arrival unfortunately coincided with the onset of a cholera epidemic that the U.N. was widely blamed with having introduced to Haiti. They were not exactly set up for success, and the power of this film is its realistic portrayal of the life of a woman peacekeeper.
Rounding out the series, Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs examines the part played by the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition during the 1990s in bringing peace to their region, and Naila and the Uprising tells the journey of Naila Ayesh, who became part of a covert network composed of Palestinian women that would play a major role in the First Intifada in the 1980s.
This second set of documentaries on women, peace and security arrives at an exciting moment for women’s rights, with the massive women’s marches, grassroots activism and the #MeToo movement inspiring more women than ever before to run for office. But the conversation around women and security receives little public attention. “I’m concerned the women, peace and security space is too insular,” says Jamie Dobie, executive director of Peace is Loud and also a filmmaker. “We need to speak to a larger audience. The question is: how?”
Starting this spring, Peace is Loud will begin screening Women, War & Peace II across the country to advance effective implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Act and to shore up the number of international relations graduate programs that incorporate gender analysis into their curriculum. Find out how to bring the films (and accompanying tool kits) to your campus or community by visiting peaceisloud.org/wwp.