Peace by Peace

Lisa Hepner, 33, made her directorial debut with Peace By Peace: Women on the Frontlines. Narrated by actress Jessica Lange, the film features Hutu and Tutsi women in Burundi, 9/11 widows, and a variety of experts on peacekeeping, including author Isabelle Allende and the executive director of UNIFEM. It recently premiered before the United Nations and will air on PBS on June 11 (check here for upcoming screenings.). Below is a conversation with the director.

How did Peace By Peace come into being?

Our executive producer Patricia Smith Melton basically funded the documentary. Patricia is a retired woman in her early 60s in Virginia. She woke up on Sept. 19th, eight days after Sept. 11 and said, "You know, I've got to do something. The world is coming to an end, I have the means and I really think that women are the key to healing after Sept. 11." She got together this private three-day dialogue in Vienna where she lived and invited prominent female human rights activists including many who appeared in the film. Patricia asked these women: What is peace and can women achieve it?

How did you choose the women and countries to visit?

We decided to go to Bosnia, Burundi, Afghanistan, Argentina and the US. Some of the countries were dictated by the original women in the dialogue circle. For example, Susan Collin Marks who heads Search for Common Ground, the largest NGO for peace and conflict resolution in the world, suggested Burundi. Search for Common Ground started a peace radio station there. Hutu and Tutsi journalists work side by side challenging the government radio stations by talking to Hutu rebels as well as Tutsi government officials. Afghanistan was Fatima Gailani, because she was one of the seven women drafting the new Afghan constitution. It was her second time back after being in exile for 21 years. When we got there we shot this underground teacher under the Taliban who is now teaching women and girls how to read and write. As soon as we arrived in each country, I would figure out what the stories were. How do we encapsulate this woman's life and her passion and her theme about peace that has manifested?

How do you?

Well, we talked to them a lot. We tried to figure out what are they passionate about, what makes them tick. What can I show on camera that will accurately represent them, their family and their work. We traveled up to Angozi outside of Burundi to a solidarity day where Hutu and Tutsi women spent the day listening to each other's stories of what happened to them during the war. There was singing and dancing and tears. It was incredible. These are people who have seen their husbands have their arms chopped off by machetes in front of them, seen their sisters raped and then killed by their neighbors. The atrocities are so huge, they're hard to fathom. It's very dangerous. These women went against the wishes of their husbands to come to this meeting.

Did you ever feel unwelcome?

In Afghanistan we had trouble shooting in some of the classrooms. We went to Paghman, just outside of Kabul, heavily shelled by the Russians, and school was just beginning again for girls. It was Sept. 2002. In the first classroom the women did not want us to film because they were afraid of what the village elders would do to them. And of course there is no way I would ever endanger their progress. But then we went to the next classroom and held our breath and they capitulated.

Did you ever feel in danger?

When we left Burundi in Feb. 2003, violence broke out two months later, very near where we had been staying. Truly scary. Of course we felt useless now that we were safely back in the US. When we were in Kabul, there was a car bombing very near where we had been scouting a bank location. An assassination attempt on Karzai that same day in Kandahar didn't make us feel much safer.

It took you a year and half to make this film. How much time did you spend in each country?

We did it pretty quickly. We'd go in there for three weeks on average. When I was home I'd shoot stuff for the US. While we were on location we had the production office working on the next shoot.

How did being a western woman influence the way you filmed it?

I was just trying to understand the character and the subject and I thought well, they'll dictate to me what is filmed and they did. It wasn't about me. It was really following their lives. And they would also give us little primers on being culturally sensitive: Leave your shoes on, make sure your head is covered.

How did it change your perception of being a woman?

I always grew up in an environment that was pretty feminist. You could do what you set your mind to. My mother's a very strong role model for me. When I was abroad I think I just realized what a privileged position I am in. Half of it is being a woman and being able to connect quite easily with women. Having that commonality and not having that wall.

What is that commonality?

Everyone in our film will always say having children. But I don't have kids. Ultimately, I think it's knowing that you are not in power. Even in this country. Most directors are men. So there's always a little bit of a struggle to be heard. But what I see these women doing, it puts it all in perspective. Their courage is astonishing. They really risk their lives and I think "my God if I think it's hard to be a feminist and have a boyfriend in New York City can you imagine being a feminist and a Muslim in Afghanistan after the Taliban?"

How did you reconcile cultural relativism vs. feminism?

In Bosnia, the women we interviewed were all pretty strong. One woman said that her husband wished that he too could apply for this loan to start a fish farm, but she told him to find his own money! In Afghanistan, all girls and women were hungry, in fact starving, to go back to school. This was very liberating for them because they were pretty much behind bars, stuck in their own homes under the Taliban. Now, the men were a different story. Attitudes hadn't really changed. It was tough for a lot of women to convince their husbands that they should have the right to learn again. At the same time, however, when we asked men if they thought women should be educated, most said yes, if it helps us to earn money.

What do you want people to take from the film?

I really want people to know that peace is possible. That it's not an ethereal idea that is unachievable because they see their governments around the world not doing the work. I want people to see that it is as simple as Susan Collin Marks saying "I can't believe what's going on in Burundi, we have to do something." But it's also as hard as what you see in Bosnia. Many years after the Dayton peace accords have been signed the unemployment rate is 60 percent in some areas. Bosnians are afraid to go to the Republic of Serbska, just outside of town basically, because they don't know what the reaction will be. So peace takes work as well. But at the end of the day, it's possible.

Some of the women featured in the film came to the UN screening. How did they react?

That to me was the point of reckoning. How did we do? They all cried. It was very moving. After the screening, we got a standing ovation. I think my dad started it. (Laughs.)

Do you envision continuing this work for the rest of your life?

I think about this because I want to have kids at some point. With the amount of travel and production, there's simply no time for domestic life. So I think I would like to do two more big films like this. And then find the man of my dreams and have a kid. Perfect. We'll stop work and say, "Come on. (gestures with hand.) Pony up." (laughs) I was listening on the train yesterday to the Wall Streeters talking and it's such a different world! I just thought, "Okay Lisa, dream on, you can't have everything."

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