Abigail Disney on Film, Universal Languages of the Heart and Social Change

Some people believe that women were written out of history, but Abigail Disney believes that women were never written in. Through her films, she's on a quest to change that. Abigail's passion for storytelling, and for accurate representations of women in the quest for peace, has led her to understand what makes a woman courageous enough to share her truth, even in the most dangerous and politically charged climates. 

“I started as a philanthropist and a grant maker. I used to be very cynical about film, because it felt like, ‘Oh it isn’t direct enough. The benefit of it is too intangible.’ But now that I’m doing what I’m doing, I realize that all those years I spent in grant making before were nothing compared to the kind of change that we’ve seen as a result of the films that we’ve made, because films climb into your heart.”

About This Episode

Some people believe that women were written out of history, but Abigail Disney believes that women were never written in. Through her films, she’s on a quest to change that. Abigail’s passion for storytelling and for accurate representations of women in the quest for peace, has led her to understand what makes a woman courageous enough to share her truth, even in the most dangerous and politically charged climates. 

About Abigail Disney

Abigail E. Disney is an Emmy-winning director and producer, philanthropist and the CEO and president of Fork Films. An active supporter of peacebuilding, she is passionate about advancing women’s roles in the public sphere. Abigail’s films and series focus on social issues and spotlight extraordinary people who speak truth to power.

Having grown up in a family of filmmakers, Abigail turned to documentaries when inspired to tell the story of a brave group of women who used nonviolent protests and sex strikes to bring an end to Liberia’s long civil war. She and renowned filmmaker Gini Reticker made the widely acclaimed PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL, which is broadly credited with highlighting the achievements of Leymah Gbowee, who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Abigail and Gini went on to found Fork Films, which is known for making and funding high profile, critically acclaimed documentaries that are seen on PBS, Netflix, HBO and other major outlets.

In addition to producing original films, Fork Films awards grants to non-fiction films that promote peacebuilding, human rights and social justice with a particular emphasis on projects with women behind or in front of the camera. As of June 2017, Fork Films has awarded over $4 million to 90 documentaries including CAMERAPERSON, TRAPPED, 1971, THE MASK YOU LIVE IN, CITIZEN KOCH, HOT GIRLS WANTED, THE INVISIBLE WAR, and SUN COME UP. Fork Films grantees have premiered at top tier film festivals, won major awards and moved the needle on important social issues.

In 2009, Abigail founded Peace is Loud, a nonprofit that inspires action through media and live events that spotlight women leaders on the frontline of peace-building worldwide.

Abigail’s directorial debut, Emmy-winning THE ARMOR OF LIGHT, co-directed by Kathleen Hughes, premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. The film follows Reverend Rob Schenck, an Evangelical minister, and Lucy McBath, the mother of a teenage shooting victim, who ask, is it possible to be both pro-gun and pro-life? Peace is Loud led the outreach and engagement campaign for THE ARMOR OF LIGHT to restore a moral, ethical, and theological framework to the conversation about gun violence in America. The campaign has initiated and supported dialogue with faith leaders and communities around the country, reaching out beyond the documentary film community to target dozens of conservative evangelical influencers .

In 2012, along with Pamela Hogan and Gini Reticker, Abigail created and executive produced the first-of-its-kind series for PBS, WOMEN, WAR & PEACE. The five-part series looked at women in modern war as active agents for peace and positive change makers in their communities. It garnered the Overseas Press Club’s Edward R. Murrow Award, a Gracie Award, and a Television Academy Honor. Season II of the series is currently in production.

Abigail also recently executive produced the Fork Films original production THE TRIALS OF SPRING, a major multi-platform project that tells the stories of nine women on the front lines of change in the MENA region. 

Abigail is the recipient of numerous awards including an honor by the International Women’s Media Foundation for advancing women’s issues and peace initiatives; IDA’s Amicus Award, The International Advocate for Peace Award, presented by Cardozo Law School; and the Epic Award presented by The White House Project.

Disney received her Bachelor’s degree from Yale University, her Master’s degree from Stanford University and her Doctorate from Columbia University. She is a mother of four.

In her words…

“It’s a dangerous job to fight for peace. You really take a lot of risks and you need your profile raised. It makes you safer. It makes you stronger. It gives you more to work with in terms of currency.”

“Sexual violence and sexual harassment, domestic violence, crime, rape, all the things that affect women disproportionately interfere with what might be called peace. I like to gather it all under that framework, because it’s a mistake to think that if we don’t have a formal war on our own shores that we’re a country at peace.”

“There’s something about sitting there in the dark and losing yourself in that story that really alters the shape of your insides and makes you receptive to the ideas that other people matter and that their realities are different, but that their spirits are the same. As long as you can get over a language barrier, that still will speak to anybody anywhere regardless if it’s about African women and you’re showing it in Eastern Europe, or if it’s about Eastern European women and you’re showing it in Afghanistan.  People understand each other in films. It’s almost like a universal language. It has this amazing ability to flatten the world and make it possible to reach very wide with a message.”

“Documentaries may rest on the actions and the commentary of other people. Because you’re able to shape them, you’re more like a painter. It’s not like you’re writing an essay just to explain the way you think, you’re using the emotional reactions that people have to other people to shape people, and guide them to a certain set of ideas and beliefs.”

“What I see in women leaders around the world is they tend to be women who are less inhibited by fear. They tend to pay attention less to those questions that we were talking about earlier, the things that hold us back, the hesitancies about our own thinking and ideas. They all have a sense of humor. This is true universally of women who lead. They tend to use a sense of humor as a way to coalesce people and bring groups together and keep them together. They tend to think in a way that’s creative and different, wholly different. They always place a very high priority in nurturing the leadership coming along behind them.”

“Every step of the way, creativity is a very difficult place to put yourself. If you’re taking something that you’ve basically pulled out of your own heart and then putting it out there for the whole world to see, that is incredibly terrifying. You’re basically saying, ‘This is the thing that came from my deepest core. I invite you now to criticize it’.”

Questions Answered on this Episode

  • In our work with thought leaders, particularly women, we sometimes find that they are doubtful of the value of their contributions. They’re hesitant to raise their voice. What have you seen, on a global perspective, around women and how they’re using their voices?

  • Thinking about this construct of peace, what role do you think film plays in social change?

  • It’s brilliant to have a film company that focuses solely on women’s issues. It’s disruptive and innovative- two qualities that are really important to thought leadership. How would you define your thought leadership?

  • How does the filmmaker still wear the thought-leader hat while allowing other people to tell the story?

  • What do you think needs to happen for more women to use their voices to create change?

  • Are there any commonalities you see among those that do decide to take a leadership role in creating change or elevating their voices or standing up against oppression? 


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