Leymah Gbowee's mission: Defy a dictator, end a war, return her native Liberia to peace. Abigail Disney's mission: Make a movie telling the world how it was done. Kevin Conley meets the visionary pair who reached across continents and cultures to show just how powerful women's voices can be.
In the fall of 2006, Leymah Gbowee, a 34-year-old Liberian mother of five, came to New York City to talk to members of the United Nations Security Council about women, security, and peace. On the third day of her visit, she attended a long series of meetings at the UN, then walked back to the Hotel Bedford, five blocks away. She had one more meeting to go, and she wasn't happy about it. A movie producer and director had asked to talk to her about a film they hoped to make, a documentary about a group of ordinary Liberian women who, if the stories were true, had managed to help stop that country's nearly continuous 14-year civil war. ("Oh, those women," one warlord said. "They didn't really matter. They were only our conscience.") Though Gbowee had agreed to sit down with the filmmakers, she assumed she'd be wasting her time. The friend who'd set up the meeting had told her that the producer, Abigail Disney, came from the movie-studio and theme-park family. "Yeah, right," Gbowee told her friend. "Disney World? What does this mean to someone from Africa?"
Disney, who is in fact Walt Disney's grandniece, and her friend, the director Gini Reticker, had heard intriguing but incomplete accounts of the Liberian story, the gist of which was that three years earlier, a group of women had formed a human barricade outside a meeting room where peace talks between the warring factions had broken down—and succeeded in forcing the negotiators to get serious. But none of the Liberian women the filmmakers had spoken to seemed to know the whole story, and none had the ineffable presence needed to carry a feature-length film. Disney had begun to fear that the project wouldn't get off the ground. Reticker, meanwhile, had begun to fear that it would. Her previous movies had addressed difficult topics (including, in her 2003 Oscar°-nominated documentary short, Asylum, female genital mutilation), but this story seemed worse. "I was afraid of it," Reticker says. "Everything you heard about what was happening in West Africa—the violence against women—was horrific."
At the Hotel Bedford, Gbowee came downstairs to the lobby in jeans and a T-shirt. The meeting would be quick—no food, no drink, no chitchat. She sat at the head of a small table and took stock of the women sitting on either side. In recent years, she'd spoken to many journalists, yet very little about the doings of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), the interfaith movement of Christians and Muslims she'd helped found in 2001, had ever appeared in print, on film, or on radio. "So I'm saying to myself, 'Okay, these two white girls want to talk,'" she remembers. "Apparently my face showed I wasn't interested in anything they had to offer, but I tried to be nice." She told the visitors how WIPNET had indeed played a vital role in ending the war, then excused herself and went back to her room.
And just that quickly, Disney and Reticker walked outside and started jumping up and down. "We couldn't believe how incredible Leymah was," Disney says. "She was (a) brilliant, (b) beautiful, (c) fierce, and (d) at the heart of a story that was even more astonishing than we'd imagined. Any doubt I had about making this movie was gone."
The Liberian civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 2003 with only brief interruptions, was the result of economic inequality, a struggle to control natural resources, and deep-rooted rivalries among various ethnic groups, including the descendants of the freed American slaves who founded the country in 1847. The war involved the cynical use of child soldiers, armed with lightweight Kalashnikovs, against the country's civilian population. At the center of it all was Charles Taylor, the ruthless warlord who initiated the first fighting and would eventually serve as Liberian president until he was forced into exile in 2003.
Gbowee was born in central Liberia but grew up in Monrovia, the country's capital. Her father was, in her words, "typical indigenous dirt-poor"; her mother came from the Americo-Liberian elite. Over the years, the family saw the worst of the sectarian violence. One day in 1990 Gbowee and her mother were at one of the city's Lutheran churches, where 2,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were being sheltered. "That morning soldiers came to the church and rounded up several persons and killed them," Gbowee says. "And one of the guys told us, 'You should not stay here tonight, because the group that's coming soon will be worse than us.'" Thanks to that advice—a murderer's random act of kindness—Gbowee and her mother survived the slaughter that followed: more than 600 people cut down in a single night. "We went just two blocks away, and we could hear people screaming, crying, begging for help—an all-night massacre."
As the war continued, so did sustained campaigns of rape and mutilation. In 1996, when Gbowee's son was 3, her daughter 2, and she was five months pregnant, the fighting came so close to their home that she had to rush them all to safety, past checkpoints that fighters sometimes decorated, as she puts it, with "a fresh young head." They took shelter at her parents' three-bedroom home—along with some 50 other relatives and friends. Every morning the group came together to scrape out a meal from whatever they had. And one morning Gbowee's son told her, "I really am so hungry. I just need a piece of doughnut."
"Nuku," she said, using a pet name for her son Joshua Joseph, "I don't have a piece of doughnut to give you."
In that moment Gbowee realized that, thanks to this war, her children had lived in hunger their whole lives. The realization stuck with her. She had become a social worker in 1994, and in 1998 she began counseling former child soldiers; finally, the damage done to all of Liberia's children was more than she could bear. In 2001, she persuaded the women at her church to join her in peace marches and prayer vigils, and, when groups of Muslim women with similar sentiments heard about them and decided to follow suit, a movement was born. In 2003 Gbowee was appointed spokesperson, the one to stand before the microphones when the women marched or handed over an official resolution. At such times she felt inspired, as if what she said was "ordained by God."
Despite Gbowee's initial lack of enthusiasm, the filmmakers threw themselves into their project. They had discovered that established news sources had very little footage of WIPNET at work, and this scarcity helped shape their vision of the film. "We realized that there was a reason for that, right?" says Disney, a 48-year-old mother of four. "The women had been defined out of the frame. So we decided to put them back where they belonged."
Their persistence was rewarded. Gbowee grudgingly agreed to set up interviews with other women from wipnet and—a crucial victory—to sit for the camera herself. She gradually went from reluctant participant to charismatic star, and the project took off. Pray the Devil Back to Hell—a surprisingly hopeful mix of eyewitness accounts, archival news footage, and home video of key events—premiered in New York in April.
Four months before the premiere, a key clip landed on the filmmakers' desk: handheld footage of the day, in 2003, when Gbowee confronted President Charles Taylor himself. It was an official event—WIPNET handing over a signed resolution calling for peace; that the women had gotten Taylor there, that their constant presence had gotten his attention at all (as they chanted and sang every day, through monsoons and heat waves, in a field that Taylor passed on his way to work), was stunning. Taylor had been arguably the most feared warlord in Africa, and his cold-bloodedness hadn't diminished with his rise to the presidency. Now he sat several yards away on a gilt sofa decorated with the official seal of Liberia. The dais on which Gbowee stood was turned toward the audience, but she turned to face Taylor instead. She spoke in the controlled cadence of diplomacy, but the fury behind her words was unmistakable:
"We ask the honorable pro tem of the senate...to kindly present this statement to his excellency Dr. Charles Taylor with this message: that the women of Liberia, including the IDPs...are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, 'Mama, what was your role during the crisis?' Kindly convey this to the president of Liberia. Thank you."
Several times as filming progressed, Gbowee had occasion to return to Manhattan, and when she did, she stayed at Disney's apartment. She was there when one of Disney's sons was sick, and she saw that, despite the Disney money, here was a mother who worried the way all mothers do. The two women began to get to know each other. Slowly they started becoming friends.
I have been friends with Disney for nearly 30 years, and in August, when Gbowee was in town for another UN conference, I joined them for dinner. As Disney cooked, her husband, Pierre Hauser, a writer and another old friend, could be heard down the hall, cheering and watching the Olympics with their two young sons. One of their daughters stopped in the kitchen on her way out to see a movie. Gbowee checked her e-mail on the family computer. When Disney set out dinner—roast chicken, fried zucchini, and rice—she remembered to serve a hot-pepper sauce Gbowee likes.
Things are equally cozy and hospitable when Disney goes to Liberia. "A friend was like, 'How can you invite her to your house? You have so many children. That place is too humble,'" Gbowee told me over dinner. "And I said, 'Listen to me. I have five children. Abby has four children, three cats, two turtles, one dog, one bunny, one goldfish.'"
That both women are mothers is not a negligible coincidence but a first principle: Pray the Devil Back to Hell shows how motherhood can become an eloquent political force. But their children aren't the only thing that unites them; temperamentally, too, Gbowee and Disney are alike. "It's remarkable," says Mary McCormick, president of the Fund for the City of New York, a wide-ranging philanthropic organization that has set up a program so donors can contribute to the women's peace-building movement in Africa. "They're totally unsimilar in terms of the obvious: wealth, origin, nationality. But they're very similar in terms of their drive, and their vision, and their willingness to do what it takes to get the job done."
Disney grew up in Toluca Lake, California, just two miles from the Disney studio in Burbank. As a teenager she spent a lot of time playing basketball and volleyball, pastimes that irked her family for being unladylike; when I first met her, in 1979, irking her family was a preoccupation. Back then, it was clear to her friends that she regarded family wealth with pained ambivalence, a predicament that was greeted with scant sympathy.
She involved herself as little as possible with the studio and the family investment corporation. After graduating from Yale, she moved to New York; she wrote her PhD thesis at Columbia on American war novels; she and Hauser started the Daphne Foundation and began giving money to grassroots organizations that fight poverty.
She was loud, literary, politically active, quick with a waggish comment. She accepted offers to join the boards of many organizations. But until making Pray the Devil Back to Hell, she says, she'd "never done anything on purpose." Even her introduction to Liberia was an accident: In the early days of the administration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, elected president in 2005 after nearly three years of corrupt transitional government following Taylor's exile, Disney was invited to visit the country with a group from Harvard's Women and Public Policy Program. And on that trip she first heard the stories about the women who'd ended a war. On the last night of her visit, over drinks with Geoffrey Rudd, the European Commission's chargé d'affaires in Liberia, she double-checked the accuracy of the rumors. "Here is a guy," she says, "who, if this is a fairy tale, he's going to be the guy to tell me. And before I could even get to the end of the sentence, he said, 'Those women were amazing. We wouldn't be sitting here in peace, with Ellen in the presidency, if it hadn't been for them. In fact, there's CNN footage of me trying to climb out the window of the negotiating room.'"
When it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival just a year and a half after that first meeting at the Hotel Bedford, Pray the Devil Back to Hell won the festival's award for best documentary feature. It is an upbeat story about an unlikely mix of characters who believed in themselves and kept on doing so through the worst of circumstances and against all odds, all the way to their final triumph. (The irony of this is not lost on Disney. "I made a Disney movie!" she says. "It was completely by accident, believe me. But it does make me laugh.")
At the climax of the film, nearly 200 women loop arms in the close quarters of the corridor outside the "peace hall," where Taylor's representatives and the rebel warlords are meeting but getting nowhere. The women are blocking the men from leaving the room, and the generals stuck inside send security forces to arrest Gbowee for obstructing justice. "And that term 'obstructing justice' was almost like when you take gas and pour it on an open flame," Gbowee says. "I said, 'Okay, I'm going to make it very, very easy for you to arrest me.' I took off my hair tie. They were looking at me, and I said, 'I'm going to strip naked.'"
Throughout West Africa, it's a powerful curse for a woman to strip naked in public—absolute bad luck, bad fortune. And to Gbowee, that's what the situation called for. That morning, she'd heard a report of a missile exploding in the American embassy compound in Monrovia: Two boys had just gone out to brush their teeth, and now all that was left of them was their slippers. "That day we had to do something dramatic," she says.
The moderator of the talks came into the hall to calm her. Gbowee was enraged, but she was also a brilliant tactician. "There were two things playing in our favor," she explains. "One, the peace talks were in Ghana, and the Ghanaians hold strongly to their traditional beliefs. And the men at the table mostly came from indigenous backgrounds and also held strongly to indigenous beliefs. They would have given us the world rather than see us stripping naked." When a frustrated warlord came out to try to push and kick the women away, Gbowee says the moderator told him, "Go back in there and sit down. If you were a real man, you wouldn't be killing your people. But because you are not a real man, that's why they will treat you like boys."
Two weeks later, the terms of the peace treaty were announced.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell has traveled widely since its release, playing to women's gatherings in Srebrenica, Lima, Jerusalem, and Tbilisi. Disney likes to quote an old African saying: When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers; the movie reflects her belief that it was "time for the grass to speak."
That interest in giving voice also explains why, when Gbowee came to New York for the premiere, Disney introduced her to some of the biggest players in the city's philanthropy scene—people like Hildy Simmons, a former managing director at J.P. Morgan turned philanthropic adviser, and Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project. By then, Gbowee had founded a new and broader organization, Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN), and the group needed money. "We were struggling with institutional support, myself and my staff," she says. "We had not taken salary for three months." Disney put up $25,000 of her own money and then got a cadre of donors to follow suit. "She didn't have to do it," Gbowee says. "The movie was complete. Most people, once they've gotten what they wanted, they are off and out of your life!" Thanks to this newly solid financial footing, wipsen has been able to export peace-building programs to war-torn zones in Sierra Leone and the Niger Delta. Disney has convinced a group of American activists, including Gloria Steinem, to attend the group's conference in Ghana this month.
And when they get there, Gbowee will have one more request: "This time Abby has to stay awake at night so that we go dancing, because last time she did not do a good job," she told me in August. "She said, 'Leymah, I'm so sleepy. Can I go to bed?' And I was like, 'Abby, I thought you were a fun person.' This is one area where I think we are different. When it's nighttime and I have made up my mind that it is time to go dancing, there is nothing in my mind about sleep."
"Oh, man, I was so embarrassingly old that night," Abby said. "But it was 1 a.m. when I left, and no one was even in the club yet! If you think I was going to dance on an empty dance floor, the only white lady for 50 miles..." She shakes her head. "And by the way, when I went past that same club on the way to the airport at 7 a.m., it was still packed to the rafters."
I pointed out that if it hadn't been for big and loud and late, late parties, I would barely know Disney. At such hours, she was usually leading the charge.
"Okay, we'll see about that," Gbowee said. "In December, because of you, I will give her another chance."
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
© 2014 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.