The Success of Women Documentary Filmmakers


The news regarding women directors of fictional films in Hollywood continues to be bleak: in 2007, only 6 percent of these films were directed by women. But the non-fiction film world is a whole different story. While no one has exact figures, anecdotally most experts in the documentary community believe that women directors make up at least 50 percent of the directing ranks. Take a look at all the major film festivals that include documentaries and you will see women's names as prominent as the men's.

Lisa Jackson is a woman on a mission. She is determined to relay testimony from the thousands of women of the Congo who were raped and mutilated during many years of war. Like the team of producer Abby Disney and director Gini Retiker -- who tell how the courageous women of Liberia stood up and said no more to war -- Jackson is part of a growing movement of women filmmakers who, as Cara Mertes of Sundance notes, are making an impact by "matching their passion for storytelling with an issue."

They are pushing the boundaries of the documentary form by taking on daunting, large-scale topics and exploring them through intimate, relatable stories. Abby Disney was in Liberia for the inauguration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first African female head of state. Moved by the legions of women behind the Sirleaf victory, Disney felt compelled to bring the story to the public so it would not disappear. She used her own funds to start a production company and hooked up with Retiker to make Pray the Devil Back to Hell. She is now exploring the best distribution mechanism for the film, which recently premiered and took the best documentary feature prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film has already made its way to such countries in conflict as Georgia and Sudan, where women use screenings to help create their own peace movements.

Jackson, a 35-year doc veteran, had no funding when she began filming The Greatest Silence. She cashed in her own frequent flyer miles to get to Kinshasa. Once there, she got a U.N. ID from a friend and made her way east. As she said in a recent interview "I was a one-person band. I shot it, did the sound, directed, and edited it." Her experience told her "that once I got over there and started filming, I would get support. People would see the women's faces and hear their stories and realize what a compelling subject it was." Now these women's stories have gone mainstream. Jackson's film premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (where it was awarded a special prize), aired on HBO and will be shown June 19 at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York.

So how come women documentarians have achieved a success that has eluded those in the fiction business? It could be because "a lot of the funders in the broadcast world are also women," says Sean Farnel, the programming director at Hot Docs, one of the big documentary festivals in Canada. It's true. Everywhere you look there are women -- from Sheila Nevins and her team that run HBO's documentary division; to the three-year-old women-run producing/funding entity Chicken and Egg Pictures, which, in a variety of ways, has supported 37 women-directed films (including Lioness and Going on 13, which both premiered recently at the Tribeca Film Festival); to Women Make Movies, which has been distributing, promoting and producing films by and about women since 1972.

Another reason is not so upbeat: documentaries have lower budgets, smaller staffs and, in turn, less prestige. Cara Mertes, director of the documentary film program at the Sundance Institute, says that the doc field "is notoriously not a good way to make a living and men tend to be interested in things where there is a lot of potential for a pay-off so they will gravitate towards fictional films."

Women have been an integral part of formation of the documentary genre, with veterans like Barbara Kopple, Kim Longinotto, Chris Hegedus and Lourdes Portillo leading the way. In the 1970s, women picked up cameras to document the feminist tumult happening around them. They have traversed the abortion rights struggle since Roe with films like Dorothy Fadiman's definitive series (including The Fragile Promise of Choice and From Danger to Dignity); Jane: An Abortion Service by Kate Kurtz and Nell Lundy; and On Hostile Ground by Liz Mermin and Jenny Raskin.

Now, when abortion doesn't get as much media attention, women filmmakers keep focus on the issue with evolving views. Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner used women's voices and experiences to make I Had an Abortion. Faith Pennick felt compelled to make Silent Choices, about African-American women and abortion, after a friend said that "abortion is a white women's issue and black women have more important things to worry about." Pennick knew full well that "if Roe v Wade were overturned tomorrow it's going to be black and brown women who will be affected first and hardest." Angie Young took her camera to South Dakota while working against that state's attempt to ban abortion. As only someone who grew up post-Roe can do, she is making The Coat Hanger Project to speak to her peers who know little if anything about abortion rights.

Documentaries have always been a crucial way to get information out about media neglected issues and lives, especially from the world's poorer countries. This function has been helped along in recent years by the rise of the Internet and improved technologies like smaller digital cameras and computer home editing programs.

Several films telling women's stories with international focus have been able to garner attention precisely because of little competing coverage from mainstream media. Women have been using docs to engage the media at least since the early 1990s, when Alice Walker went on the Today show and spoke about female genital mutilation in conjunction with the documentary Warrior Marks. When Lourdes Portillo's film Senorita Extraviada was released in 2002, it prodded the media to cover the missing and murdered young women in Juarez, Mexico.

The list of films women make to awaken the world is too plentiful to name them all here. There is the Oscar-winning Born into Brothels (co-directed by Zana Briski) about the children of prostitutes in Calcutta and God Sleeps in Rwanda (directed by Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman) about five women rebuilding their lives after the Rwandan genocide; more recent are The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo (directed by Lisa F. Jackson), Pray the Devil Back to Hell (directed by Gini Retiker) about how women were integral in the fight for peace in Liberia, and The Sari Soldiers (directed by Julie Bridgham), which highlights six women on different sides of the Nepali conflict trying to remake their country and has its U.S. premiere June 20 at the New York Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.

But making these documentaries -- like many ventures centering on women -- is very hard to fund. Even a film with the high profile subject of women in the U.S. Senate was nearly impossible for one entertainment business insider. Mary Lambert had spent most of her life in the music video world working with stars like Madonna and Janet Jackson. She was drawn to make a documentary about the women in the Senate when her sister Blanche Lambert Lincoln won election from Arkansas. What she thought would be a simple project "has proved to be one of the most difficult things I have done in my life."

14 Women, like so many others featured at film festivals around the world, does not yet have distribution for either TV or the theaters. But such filmmakers are undaunted, believing deeply in the importance of the stories they are telling. They use grass roots outreach and innovative techniques on the Internet to give their films lives beyond the festival circuit. Carol Ciancutti-Leyva, whose film Absolutely Safe examines safety problems with breast implants, reached out through women's studies program to create a conversation among young women and men. "Breast implants are just a symptom in the culture," she says. "The bigger picture is something much larger. "Amy Sewell and Susan Toffler have decided to self-distribute their film -- what's your point, honey? -- which looks at seven young women and the future of women's political leadership. Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake, the director and producer of The Business of Being Born, felt compelled to "provide more resources and information to people who were stirred up by the film. We are slowly growing our website into a birth resource guide for more holistic childbirth options," says Epstein "and we are coming out with a book and sequel DVD next year."

In a movie world dominated by escapist fare, women documentarians are making sure that women's voices and experiences are part of the conversation. Seek out their films on TV stations like A&E, Discovery, HBO, Showtime, Sundance, IFC, and especially PBS. Others can be found on Netflix or for purchase on the web, or join Women's Independent Cinema where for $21 a month (plus shipping) you can get four films by women (one fiction, one doc and two shorts) sent right to your home. These documentaries may be hard to find, but it will be worth the effort.

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