Film & Television

Through a Female Lens, Documentaries by Women

Two years ago, Hollywood’s women said “Time’s Up” — but, has anything really changed?

A full 50% of film school graduates are women; 51% of U.S. movie audiences are women. Yet of the 100 top grossing films of last year, women represented only 4% of directors, 14% of editors, 15% of writers, and 18% of producers. And, when you look at women of color or diverse ethnicities, the numbers are even worse.

The one area that seems to continue to deliver good news is the documentary genre. A study by the IDA, the International Documentary Association, revealed that more women are joining the documentary profession each year. In fact, seventy percent of the new documentary professionals represented were women. And, more than half (62%) of the women respondents who have entered the industry within the last 15 years were women of color.

Perhaps it’s because budgets are lower, so there’s less competition. Or, because women tend to gravitate toward subjects that are prime documentary material — like human rights. Or, it may be that documentaries, more than other film genres, allow directors to make deeply personal statements, to have a voice in an industry that — historically — hasn’t been all that willing to listen.

Here are several worth listening to.


Feminists: What Were They Thinking? (2018)

Directed by Johanna Demetrakas and edited by her long-time colleague Kate Amend, the film is inspired by a 1977 book of photographs by Cynthia McAdams that captured the spirit of second wave feminism. Demetrakas explains, “At the time, feminism was just blooming so much, and our lives were blooming.” The director and her team connect with many of the book’s subjects — as well as modern-day feminists — to uncover the progress we’ve made in recent decades and the areas that still need to evolve. Feminists: What Were They Thinking? includes inspirational interviews with younger feminists as well as Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin. In her director’s statement on the project’s fundraising page, Demetrakas wrote, “Feminism seems to be the scariest word in the English language. But not for those of us who experienced the game-changing awakening that was the Women’s Movement of the 1970s . . . Our film, Feminists: What were they thinking? digs deep into our personal experiences of sexism and of liberation, and follows this ever-challenging dialogue right into the 21st century. We are taking it personally.”




13th (2016)

After Ava DuVernay tackled the civil rights movement with Selma, but before she dramatized beloved children’s book A Wrinkle in Time or made the acclaimed miniseries When They See Us, she made 13th. Named for 1865’s Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery, the film proposes that the current prison system has replaced legal slavery as a way to keep people, particularly African American men, in a perpetual state of involuntary servitude. 13th, which was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar, contends that policies such as convict leasing, privatized and corporate prisons, mandatory minimum sentences, and the so-called “war on drugs” have disproportionately targeted minority communities. DuVernay argues that the vast profits realized by imprisonment have replaced slavery as a coordinated “system of racial control.” 




Gender Revolution with Katie Couric (2017)

In order to be even more inclusive, the acronym LGBTQ is evolving to the long, but politically correct, LGBTTQQIAAP. It’s no wonder that many people — even the most liberal and well-meaning — are confused. In Gender Revolution, journalist and author Couric interviews a variety of transgender and intersex individuals to explore current (and ever-changing) gender identity experiences and society’s response. The project, produced in partnership with National Geographic and World of Wonder, may have started as a response to Couric’s less than “woke” 2014 interview with transgender model Carmen Carrera. Stumbling over pronouns and questions of anatomy, Couric was chastised by Laverne Cox, who pointed out that “The preoccupation with transition and with surgery objectifies trans people. By focusing on bodies, we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination.” In the documentary, which seems to be meant to help educate those outside the LGBTQ+ community, Couric admits, “It’s all happening so fast. For some people, it’s too much to handle.” 




Hello Privilege, It’s Me Chelsea (2019)

In Alex Stapleton’s Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea, late-night television personality Chelsea Handler examines the concept of white privilege — both how it has affected American culture and how it has had an inarguably positive impact on her own career. Looking at systemic racism may seem like an unlikely subject for the blonde-haired, blue-eyed comedienne, so Stapleton has her host interact with black celebrities, students, and activists. One of the film’s most memorable sequences is when Handler reconnects with Tyshawn, her black boyfriend from high school. In their youth, the two were caught smoking pot on a couple of occasions. The police sent Handler home to her parents but arrested Tyshawn. Their shared experience and the disparate ways they were treated as a result altered their futures. Handler was able to pursue her ambitions. Tyshawn lost his college scholarship. Director Stapleton drives this home. “It was like, ‘Oh, this poor girl needs to go back to her people.’ Whereas Tyshawn was thought of as a perpetrator, no second chances.” She sees a parallel in her work as a female director. “If I mess up on a job, it might devastate my career but for a white male … I think you get a lot of opportunities to correct yourself.”




Daughters of Destiny (2017)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth’s Daughters of Destiny focuses on five girls from poor Indian families who are chosen to attend a special boarding school created to provide otherwise impossible opportunities for advancement. Following their stories for seven years, Roth examines the challenges each faces as they strive for the personal growth that will help lift them and their families out of poverty. She didn’t originally intend for the movie to be about girls. “We actually filmed the whole time with boys and girls,” she explains. “I wanted to focus on the development of a person and the idea of family, the relationships and individual growth. But as we kept filming, and as we started editing, I realized that maybe subconsciously or naturally, something happened where we had stronger footage and more footage of the young girls and women. Though the stories of both boys and girls are important to tell, the girls have gender, caste and class that they need to overcome. It’s something that adds to psychology, emotions, education, health care, every issue. When you talk about women and girls in the world, these girls have all of these things to live with and to navigate their lives through.”




City of Joy (2016)

Another film about the power of education to change the course of lives, Madeleine Gavin’s City of Joy centers on a women’s leadership center, founded by playwright Eve Ensler, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Denis Mukwege, and activist Christine Schuler-Deschryver. At “City of Joy,” in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, women who have been raped, abused, and tortured during the region’s two-decade war are able to overcome trauma and find meaning and goals for the future of their community. Because of its quite literal “war on women,” the Congo has been referred to as, “The worst place in the world to be a woman.” But, Gavin’s film is ultimately hopeful and uplifting as it dramatizes the hope and resilience of the human — and especially, the female — spirit in the face of unimaginable pain, sorrow, and loss. 



All of these new (or new-ish) documentaries by women are available on demand this winter. They’re perfect for a cozy evening at home when you don’t really want to leave the comfort of your couch, but can still feel good about watching and learning about something important — through a female lens.


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