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The Perils of Peacemaking: Women in War as Agents of Change

By Frako Loden

Editor's Note: On October 17 at the IDA offices in Los Angeles, IDA will present a Master Class on Directing and Executive Producing with Abigail Disney. The filmmaker will discuss the specific challenges of making social issue documentaries and using them as a tool for change. Learn more and purchase tickets.

Women in war: Images that spring to mind are of women being dragged away from their children, raped as spoils or abducted as trophies. Seldom do we visualize them in combat, or as more than passive victims. But victims they increasingly are, as women and children have come to be acceptable collateral damage and targets of war strategy.

Rarest of all, until now at least, are images of women aggressively pursuing peace and justice in the midst of war. But these images are plentiful in the stirring Women, War & Peace, a five-part public television series about the changing role of women in global conflict and peacemaking.

Women, War & Peace, conceived by veteran documentary filmmakers Abigail E. Disney, Pamela Hogan and Gini Reticker, launches Women and Girls Lead, an expansive, three-year, ITVS-sponsored "public media initiative designed to focus, educate and connect citizens across the globe working to help women and girls realize their potential in the 21st century." According to Tamara Gould, vice president of ITVS International, this initiative "is built around a slate of 50 documentaries by independent filmmakers from around the world, telling character-driven stories of leaders on the frontlines of education, human rights, economic development, health and democracy."

Women, War & Peace airs on successive Tuesdays, from October 11 through November 8, as a PBS special. Other projects in Women and Girls Lead include Half the Sky (Prods.: Maro Charmayeff, Jamie Gordon, Mikaela Beardsley), based on the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, which is slated to air on Independent Lens in late 2012; and Kind-Hearted Woman (Dir./Prod.: David R. Sutherland), about an Oglala Sioux woman fighting abuse, which will air on Frontline in 2013.

Asked how this slate of programs plans to reach beyond the white, middle-class, middle-aged viewer of public television, Gould says the initiative will target niche communities on mobile devices, gaming platforms and social media, as well as international audiences through partnerships with foreign broadcasters and through the Internet. "We're in this moment where independent filmmakers are telling wave after wave of stories of women and girls from every corner of the world," she asserts. "Sex trafficking, maternal mortality, child marriage... So the first challenge is how do you tell these stories and not have people turn away? Another challenge is the deafening media din: How do you take these stories and break through the noise? Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is that there's so much progress being made and yet too little attention and collaboration. So how can you help bridge the gaps and help people focus and connect on the issues that matter most?"

One theme that Women and Girls Lead focuses on, and which Women, War & Peace emphasizes, is women and girls as agents of change. It's not only a time-tested storytelling trope, but it steers viewers away from the uninspiring, and often repellent, image of women as eternal victims. Says Gould, "It was so clear that the subject and approach of the series­­--really examining how war and conflict can look different from a female perspective--was emblematic of what we were looking for in the Women and Girls Lead initiative."

In its first episode, Women, War & Peace tackles a daunting documentary challenge: How to depict the heroic actions of women whose faces, and even voices, must be disguised and distorted? I Came to Testify focuses on the Muslim women and girls of the Bosnian town of Foca who were raped by their own countrymen--sometimes their neighbors--in the Yugoslav wars. In the early 1990s, the world became aware of the existence of rape camps in Eastern Bosnia and horrifying statistics of rape victims in the tens of thousands.

Beginning in 2000, the United Nations Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague was convened to record the women's stories and prosecute war crimes, and for the first time in history, rape was defined not just as a war crime but as a crime against humanity. Women such as Witness 99 and Z.R. courageously risked ridicule and shame to testify in a global forum, revealing that rape had become a systematic and deliberate tactic in ethnic cleansing.

Producer/writer Hogan says her crew was prepared for the necessity of hiding the women's identities for their protection. Rejecting facial pixilation as dehumanizing, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson let the women's simple hand gestures like stubbing out a cigarette bear all the pain, rage and dignity of their experience.

Episode 2, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, shows the horror of rape and violence through imagery borrowed from public posters in Liberia, where the multilingual population can easily understand the issues at stake. The film, which earned the Best Documentary Feature award at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, is making its US broadcast premiere in this series. Directed by Reticker and produced by Disney, Pray the Devil Back to Hell follows the riveting Leymah Gbowee in her successful efforts to bring together Christian and Muslim women in forcing Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and his enemy warlord factions to negotiate a peace in 2003 after years of brutal civil war.

The women left their homes and traveled to Accra, Ghana, where they sat outside the negotiating hall. The male faction leaders, unaccustomed to fully subsidized junkets, treated the conference as a holiday and didn't take the talks seriously until the women, led by Gbowee, barricaded them inside until they came up with a plan. Ultimately, the women went from cowering in their homes, unable to feed their families, to becoming a force for peace that exiled Taylor and brought regime change to Liberia. "We campaigned until we forgot that we could even be raped," Gbowee maintains in the film. Their efforts helped elect the first African woman head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2005. Sirleaf acknowledged "the powerful voice of women," which brought her to triumph and stable leadership over a murderous strongman.

Episode 3, Peace Unveiled, moves to Afghanistan and the fortunes of women in wartime there. When the Taliban were in power before 2001, education for women was banned. As a result, almost 90 percent of Afghan women are unable to read or write, and women working outside the home are subjected to terrifying death threats. In this atmosphere, members of the 3,000-member Afghan Women's Network risk their lives to educate and gain electoral seats for women in the administration led by Hamid Karzai, to have a voice in its negotiations with the misogynistic Taliban. The AWN's view is that Karzai's regime concedes too much to the Taliban, and it is up to them to venture out into the unsafe streets to campaign for votes. "This terrible suffering inflicted on the women and girls of Afghanistan is not cultural--it is criminal--and we must do everything we can in our power to stop it," says US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the film. "I pledge to the women of Afghanistan: We will not abandon you. We will stand with you always."

Clinton is a strong presence in this series, a trusted player in global peacemaking. Hogan maintains, "Her confirmation hearing as Secretary of State made it loud and clear: Women's issues would be treated not only as a humanitarian issue but as national security policy. She is a pivotal figure for us."

Episode 4, The War We Are Living, highlights the fight for the life of a small village of Afro-Colombians who have lived off small-scale, artisanal gold-mining for centuries. They are now being bullied off their ancestral land by multinational interests--just the latest stage in the country's 40-year civil war. Two women have stepped up to fight both shadowy paramilitary forces and moneyed corporations, determined not to be chased out of the only home they've ever had. This episode dramatizes another deliberate tactic of war-displacement--and how it kills human dignity and tradition. Narrator Alfre Woodard says of one of the women, Clemencia Carabali, "She found that in wartime, women could organize more freely than men." Carabali and her network of African-Colombian women drive on country roads and rivers along which hundreds of people have been killed in deliberate terror campaigns, keeping track of the citizens and fighting for the right to own the land they've worked for generations.

Episode 5, War Redefined, is a magisterial summation of the themes introduced in the more sharply focused preceding episodes. Disney quotes Don Steinberg of the International Crisis Group as saying that peacemaking is the most dangerous profession in the world. Hogan hopes that Women, War & Peace will "cause it so that, when people think about or prepare for war, their discussion will include the impact on everybody--not just the soldiers but the true, human picture of the impact of war. In many places, it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier. If we can provide a different lens through which to view war, to cause a paradigm shift, we want to play a role in it."


Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at CSU East Bay and Diablo Valley College.