Questions were raised and conventional thoughts were tested as Academy Award winner Geena Davis, filmmaker Abigail E. Disney and UC Irvine associate professor Roxanne Varzi discussed the new five-part PBS series “Women, War and Peace” in the UCI Student Center on Thursday, Oct. 13.
The event was one component of the “Living Peace Series” — a sequence of conversations held with international leaders who are committed to making the world a more compassionate and sustainable place to live.
The Center for Living Peace in Orange County and UCI have been working together in order to bring these renowned speakers to campus.
Thursday’s program began with an introduction from Chancellor Drake, who spoke of the University’s commitment to promoting leadership and character excellence in the world, and the importance of educating the “whole” person.
Afterwards, Center for Living Peace founder Kelly Smith was introduced as the moderator for the panel consisting of Geena Davis, Abigail Disney and Roxanne Varzi.
“I want this to feel like we’re sitting around the kitchen table, while really putting the focus on the work that you guys have done,” Smith said.
With that, Smith gave brief introductions of each of the panelists and then delved into the main topic of the night: insights from how the documentary “Women, War and Peace” was created, and how it helped changed the usual idea that war is solely the business of males.
The idea for the documentary began in 2006 when Disney traveled to Liberia about two months after President Sirleaf was inaugurated. She wanted to go in order to show support for the new president and her endeavors.
Upon arrival, it came to Disney’s attention that there was a story about how the landscape of war has changed. In the past, wars were primarily fought by nation states and their armies.
Presently, gangs, insurgent groups and their warlords have replaced those former entities and have started numerous wars with improvised weapons and small arms.
With this, women have become the primary targets in these wars and have had to suffer numerous causalities and injustices along the way.
Yet despite being the victims of several unjust acts, women have risen to the top in countries such as Liberia to make partnerships yearning for peace, and to become powerful leaders that create new laws regarding conflict.
However, nobody outside of Liberia seemed to be aware of the acts toward peace that these women were making on a daily basis.
“I thought that it was such a horrible injustice that these women risk their lives and work so successfully politically, and nobody knows them,” said Disney.
Wanting to spread the word about the work women have been doing in other countries to garner peace, Disney set out to make this new series, which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on PBS SoCal.
After brief discussion about the premise of the film, a trailer and preview of the documentary was played for the audience.
The series centers on women in conflict zones from Bosnia to Afghanistan, and Colombia to Liberia.
Women are shown protesting for peace in Liberia, hoping to conclude the brutal regime of Charles Taylor and end the civil war. Leymah Gwobee was an integral part of this movement, and was one of three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize 2011 announced about two weeks ago.
“Leymah was somebody who we met along the way,” said Disney when describing how she never knew of this woman until her trip to Liberia.
“This woman was so charismatic and so well-spoken, and so able, and nobody had any idea who she was.”
The segment in Liberia highlights the work of Gwobee, bringing light to all work of which women are capable.
Another episode covers women testifying in war-crime trials against their rapists in Bosnia.
A final segment shows women in Afghanistan who are defying the Taliban to ensure that peace does not cost the rights of women and children.
“One of things that we wanted to visualize for people is that women step up, they fight what’s happening, and then there’s this enormous fabric upholding these communities together,” said Disney.
Geena Davis, who narrates one of the episodes in the series, has been doing a lot of work through the “Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media” in order to show that women really do play vital roles.
“Our institute is devoted to research on gender depictions in media, specifically of the female depiction in the media that kids see,” Davis said.
Davis explained how there are very few women characters in kids TV shows, and that the ones who are there are very narrowly stereotyped.
“They are either serving as eye candy, or they are sidelined from the real action, or they are hyper-sexualized … even in G-rated movies,” Davis said.
Davis’ work to destroy the typical female depiction in media directly correlates with the documentary’s mission to show that women play much bigger roles in peace and conflict than most people think.
The rest of the discussion included other insights from Roxanne Varzi, who spoke of growing up in the Iranian war zone, and how women are commonly viewed in those areas.
After thoughts from these speakers concluded, questions were opened up to the audience.
A student asked how men could be encouraged and persuaded to take part in women’s rights for peace — a movement that is commonly thought to only affect the female population.
“The empowerment of women is absolutely as beneficial for men as it is for women,” Davis said.
“There’s so much evidence now that societies prosper more, businesses earn more, everything flourishes the more that women are in power … it’s just important for men as well.”
The event concluded on the note that the rights for women and peace do not just concern females — it is an issue that concerns all human beings in general.