Scene from "Pray the Devil Back to Hell"
In this scene from Abigail Disney’s documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” – part of the “Women, War & Peace” television series – Liberian women demonstrate at the American Embassy in Monrovia at the height of the African nation’s civil war. Pewee Flomoku

Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis, documentary filmmaker Abigail Disney, and UC Irvine associate professor of anthropology and film & media studies Roxanne Varzi spoke to a packed Pacific Ballroom in the UC Irvine Student Center Oct. 13 to mark the Southern California debut of “Women, War & Peace,” a bold, five-part PBS television series challenging the conventional wisdom that war and peace are men’s domain.

“We want to generate a discussion and a look at war through women’s eyes,” said Disney, executive producer of “Women, War & Peace,” which includes her documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” “We are 51 percent of the planet and yet we’re not participating as peers. The world is missing those voices.”

She praised partnerships like the one that brought the program to campus Thursday as part of the Living Peace Series – UCI, PBS SoCal and Center for Living Peace – saying it was the kind of effort that would ensure the future of quality programming.

“Universities have been so great with this project,” she said. “Students are excited because they see women their mothers’ ages doing wonderful things that they don’t see in the media. They have crazy enthusiasm for this.”

The series, which airs on PBS SoCal Tuesdays at 10 p.m., covers conflict zones from Bosnia to Afghanistan and from Colombia to Liberia, placing women at the center of dialogue about security and modern warfare. In Bosnia, women testify in war-crime trials against their rapists. In Afghanistan, they organize to defy the Taliban and ensure that any eventual peace does not come at the expense of women and children. And in Liberia, women dressed in white protest for peace to help end a civil war and bring down the brutal regime of Charles Taylor. (Leymah Gbowee, a key player in that movement, was one of three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize 2011 announced last week.)

“Nobody knew these stories,” Disney said. “And it was important for me to tell them because the stories were turning into folklore before my eyes and that’s a sure step toward oblivion, especially with women’s history.”

Added Davis: “We never get to look at these things through women’s eyes. And it’s been that way in the media since there’s been media.” She narrates a “Women, War & Peace” episode, founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and is at the forefront of changing gender stereotypes in children’s entertainment.

Varzi called the series a good way to see what war does to people. The Iranian-born professor of anthropology and film & media studies left her homeland as a child and returned to make a documentary about the physical and emotional scars of the Iran-Iraq War

“In this digital age,” she said, “war to us is a small target on a big screen and we send out a missile and watch it hit the dot, but we don’t see the people – the people who are trying to live their lives and work and raise their families just like us.”

In the audience question and answer session, a student asked how to get her male friends involved in women’s empowerment.

“You’re right,” Disney answered. “This is not just a girl issue. It’s a human issue. The empowerment of women is as beneficial for men as it is for women. Society prospers, businesses earn more, everything flourishes the more women are empowered. We’re all people here and, in general, people want peace.”

Chancellor Michael Drake introduced the program, calling it a “wonderful way to support the community in lifelong learning” and to teach character and leadership as part of the campus mission to educate the “whole student.”

Kelly Thornton Smith, founder of Center for Living Peace, moderated the panel discussion.