Film & Television

Women Behind the Camera: 11 Documentaries on Netflix

According to the University of Southern California’s annual “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair” report, of the top 100 movies of 2017, only 8 were directed by women. The good news, I guess, is that this pathetic percentage represents improvement. In 2016, the number was only 5.

Here at Women’s Voices for Change, we often bemoan the dearth of opportunities for women directors in Hollywood. And we’re not the only ones. At the Golden Globes, before presenting the award for Best Director, Natalie Portman made a point of announcing the names of the “all-male nominees.” The Oscars, with only Greta Gerwig representing, were not much better.

The one area in film production where women do seem to hold their own is in documentaries. These films have smaller budgets and the directors are given more autonomy. In many cases, unfortunately, despite earning kudos at film festivals, they never make it to the suburban American multiplex. They do, however, find an audience on public television or on-demand video services.

Here are 11 documentaries by talented, visionary female directors. Some tell stories that are better told my women; some just tell good stories. And they’re all available on Netflix.



Directed by Ava DuVernay

Before Disney’s big-budget Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay directed 13th. The title refers to the 13th Amendment and its little-known loophole: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Her gripping and persuasive film exposes the modern-day horrors — and inherent racism — of America’s prison industry. 13th was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar and won four EMMYs, a BAFTA, and a Peabody Award.


Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Directed by Alison Klayman

First-time director Klayman creates a vivid portrait of China’s most famous — and infamous — international artist. Blurring the lines between art and politics, Ai has used his work and enthusiastic social media following to criticize his country’s authoritarian policies, with often dire consequences. He has been detained and beaten; his blog has been shut down and his studio bulldozed. (Today, he lives in exile outside of China.) Klayman’s film divides its time between his art, his family life, and his clashes with the government. She received a special jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her work.



Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

This heartbreaking film exposes the cruel and dangerous way killer whales are captured and then “trained” to perform in captivity. Cowperthwaite focuses specifically on Tilikum, a particularly aggressive Orca that had killed multiple people. She argues that though he’s demonstrated mental illness, he is still performing and being bred. The director worked closely with trainers and animal rights activists, although many in the marine park entertainment industry claimed that she presented a sensationalized version of the truth. Nevertheless, two years after Blackfish’s release, SeaWorld reported an 84 percent drop in revenue.


Casting JonBenet

Directed by Kitty Green

In an innovative mix of drama and documentary, Green examines the still unsolved 1996 murder of diminutive pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey. Working with aspiring actors in Ramsey’s hometown, Boulder, Colorado, Green “auditions” people for the crime’s key players: JonBenet, her parents, her brother. Each person is given a chance to remember — and reinterpret — the actual events. Through this innovative approach, Green presents a fascinating look at innocence, guilt, and how we tend to mythologize the headlines of our time.


Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Directed by Chiemi Karasawa

Karasawa’s delightful documentary is a “must-see” for anyone who loves show business. On the eve of her 87th birthday, Broadway legend Elaine Stritch reminisces about her larger-than-life career, punctuated by irreverent anecdotes, carefully curated footage, interviews with friends and professional colleagues, and rehearsals for a new one-woman show. Although Stritch candidly chronicles her many health issues, the Associated Press pointed out that the film “is a document not of Stritch’s dwindling, but of her feisty persistence.”


Hot Girls Wanted

Directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus

Bauer and Gradus began their project as a study of how men on campuses consume online pornography. It soon became apparent to them that the real story was how so many young women are drawn into the sex trade by web-based “talent scouts.” The film focuses on several 18- and 19-year- old actresses as well as their 23-year old agent. Although one of the girls interviewed stopped working after her involvement in the documentary, in an ironic postscript the film inspired a number of other young women to enter the business.


India’s Daughter

Directed by Leslee Udwin

In 2012, a young medical student, Jyoti Singh, was brutally gang-raped and tortured on a bus in Delhi. She died two weeks later, sparking outrage and demonstrations. Udwin (who is an activist and actress, as well as director) includes interviews not only with Jyoti’s family, friends, and advocates, but also with her attackers, their families, and lawyers. The result is a fascinating look at a country torn between its historic attitudes towards women and its attempts to assimilate into the modern world. In 2015, The New York Times named Udwin the second most impactful woman of the year (after Hillary Clinton).



Directed by Kim Snyder

Newtown premiered at the 2016 Sundance Festival and was lauded as among “The Best of Sundance” by Entertainment Weekly. Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Snyder worked on the film for three years, gaining trust and unprecedented access to the grief-stricken community. Their courage and shared determination to affect lasting change is particularly relevant after last month’s “March for Our Lives” and the current gun control debates.


What Happened, Miss Simone?

Directed by Liz Garbus

Nina Simone, who was born in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era, was a classically trained pianist before she became a recording legend and symbol of black power. Garbus knits together rare footage and recordings with interviews (including Simone’s daughter and ex-husband) and the chanteuse’s first-person narrative. Simone’s genius and struggles are given equal time in this compelling portrait of one of the most gifted — and misunderstood — artists of the 20th century.



Directed by Pascal Lamche

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who passed away at age 81 yesterday, is one of the most controversial political figures of modern times. Often called the “Mother of the Nation,” she has been lauded as an apartheid activist and vilified as a terrorist leader. Lamche’s film explores her life and commitment to lasting change in South Africa. It includes interviews with Mandela herself, as well as her compatriots and enemies. Lamche won the Sundance Award for World Cinema Documentary Directing.


The Wolfpack

Directed by Crystal Moselle

In New York City, director Moselle, who had recently graduated from the School of Visual Arts, happened upon the six Angulo brothers, aged 11 to 18, dressed like characters from Reservoir Dogs. Upon befriending them, she learned that they had been locked in their apartment on the Lower East Side for fourteen years by their father. Their only window to the outside world was the movies they watched and recreated for themselves. Finally freed, The Wolfpack is their stranger-than-fiction story, a unique coming-of-age set at the intersection of the real world and the world of film.

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  • Sarah Frank April 3, 2018 at 9:12 am

    Thank you for this article. Your list of films is terrific. There is another woman filmmaker you should be aware of — Joan Kron, who at 90 years old (!!), recently made her first documentary. It is a funny, touching, award-winning film, “TAKE MY NOSE PLEASE”, about women, comedy and plastic surgery.