According to the Council on Foreign Relations, peace agreements with women at the negotiating table are 35% more likely to last for at least 15 years. This is what executive producer Gini Reticker tells us, as we discuss part two of the acclaimed documentary series, Women, War & Peace. The series will return to PBS later this month.
The four featured films, airing on Monday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 26, tell stories of women who’ve risked their lives for peace and altered history in the process. Reticker, who co-executive produces the series with Abigail Disney and Stephen Segaller, emphasizes that these are stories about women and conflict that have never been written into history before.
The female-directed films take place all over the world—from peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, to activism in Gaza and Haiti, and culminating with the fight for justice during Egypt’s Arab Spring.
“If you can’t look at war through a woman’s eyes, you can’t understand some of the most fundamental things about it,” says Abigail Disney. Fortunately, Women, War & Peace II will give us the look we need.
Below, Disney and Reticker answer our questions about the series and give us some inspiring insight.
What is so powerful about these stories? What do you hope these films accomplish?
AD: It is a fundamentally radical thing to tell the story of war from a woman’s eyes. Everything we think we know about conflict, unless we’ve actually fought in one, comes from movies and television and video games. The narrative has always been about the combatants—about men. But the reality is that in a conflict, there are women all over the place—in the crossfire, in towns and villages, on the road trying to find safer places for themselves and their families… If you can’t look at war through a woman’s eyes, you can’t understand some of the most fundamental things about it. I hope that we can shift the assumptions that people make about war. I hope that people will remember all the consequences of going to war. I hope that people will think differently before they cheerlead for an invasion or an aggression.
GR: And I think what’s so powerful about these stories is they are unknown, yet have been happening throughout history. As film subject and former politician from Northern Ireland Bernadette Devlin says in Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs, the film that kicks off the series, it’s not that women have been written out of history, it’s that they’ve never been written in. The films in Women, War & Peace II write women into history.
When Abigail and I first made Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which was the kickoff film for the initial Women, War & Peace series, I had never really thought much about women and conflict before. I had done a lot of films about women, but women and conflict was a whole new world. Once we began to take Pray out into the world, and I had the opportunity to meet women around the globe, I realized that there were countless other similar stories that were simply unrecorded.
Let’s just say, I got schooled in how utterly critical it is to include women and the different perspectives that we offer if we want to successfully deal with conflict in the world.
At this historical moment, everyone seems to be waking up to the key contributions women make, whether it’s the #MeToo movement, the newly energized women’s movements, or The New York Times finally publishing obituaries on women they had glaringly overlooked in the past. There’s a growing recognition that women have made contributions to the world, and to history. This series is part of that.
How did you select these films?
GR: Over the last couple of years, Abigail and I looked around and saw all these extraordinary women filmmakers who were taking a fresh look at history with an eye on bringing women into focus. Whether it was Julia Bacha doing a story on the phenomenal role Palestinian women played in the first Intifada, or Eimhear O’Neill exploring the significance of the Northern Irish women during the peace negotiations, or Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Geeta Gandbhir exploring the role of a women’s peace keeping unit, we really wanted to include the perspective of these filmmakers. The films, together show a trajectory of what has been happening for the last 30 years, culminating in what has happened with women in the Arab Spring.
AD: We tried to find a range of different places and people, a range of situations, a range of characters. Partly we wanted to show what a rich variety of stories there are, but also how similar the realities are for women no matter where they are.
Do you think women are particularly skilled as peace-builders?
GR: Here is what we have seen universally to be true: when women come to the table in peace negotiations, in countries around the world, they tend to talk about things like water, schools, roads, jobs, civil rights. Those are the kinds of things that get people into war in the first place. These women are not jockeying for positions of power, instead they are focusing on how to address these issues that most shape people’s daily lives. So does that make it better to have women as part of the negotiating team? I certainly think so. In fact, the statistics for success of peace negotiations that include women are much better.
AD: I believe that every single woman is not peaceful, just as every single man is not aggressive. But, and this is important, there is a difference at the general level. Is that difference biological? Developmental? Social? I don’t know and honestly I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. And really, who cares? We have thousands of years of recorded human history that make the case. So whatever it is that draws women into peacebuilding, it is universal. And it makes sense. Why would you entrust the building of peace to those who specialize in making war?
What makes someone able to risk everything? How can we learn from them?
AD: Leymah Gbowee, who led the Liberian women in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, told me that they could never have done what they did if their backs had not been against the wall. I think almost any women, if their children are threatened, if their capacity to take care of their families is threatened, would be willing to risk it all. And this motivation is very important. What is the ferocious desire to bring peace to protect your families rooted in if not love? How much more different a starting point can that possibly be from the starting point of war?
GR: All of the women profiled in this series are ordinary women who did extraordinary things. I actually think that all of us have that bravery within us. At times I think challenges seem insurmountable. But when I watch these films, and think about these women, I can deal with the problems in my own life and begin to think about addressing the problems in my society.
Do you think we’ll be seeing an increase in female-directed projects? What do you think can be accomplished by encouraging female-led projects in the media, and elsewhere?
GR: Are we at some historical tipping point? Will we see more female directed films and female content? Yes. I think the push for parity across the industry will have an impact in us seeing both more women filmmakers and women’s stories. Part of why I feel so strongly about these films is that it’s difficult to imagine oneself doing things that you have never seen. It is almost as if reality doesn’t exist unless it’s reflected on screen. So we are thrilled to be able to broadcast these stories because we know that women and girls will see themselves in the women we portray and be encouraged to step forward in their own lives.
AD: Women in general, and young women in particular, are no longer content to sit by and be spoken for. And every project that succeeds makes the next ten possible. The genie is out of the bottle, and I don’t think we will ever see her put back in. So yes, we are going to see a lot more leadership from women around the world, of all kinds. And that will shift the paradigms under which we all function.
The show airs on PBS Monday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 26, from 9-11 p.m. (check your local listings).
Images c/o Asad Faruqi, Mahfouz Abu Turk, Mosireen Archive, Derek Speirs
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