Fact not Fiction

Women documentary directors of the Americas

18 mins read

Interesting, isn’t it, how women tend to get short shrift in recorded history. Who knew that the eminent John Grierson, considered by many to be the godfather of documentary, had two sisters, Ruby and Marion, who were documentary directors in their own right? What of Charlotte Zwerin, long-time collaborator with the Maysles brothers and the other “fathers of verité” like Drew, Leacock and Pennebaker on such landmark documentaries as Salesman and Gimme Shelter? And who has heard of verité documentaries like Geri Ashur’s Janie’s Janie and Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody that came out around that same time? Just asking: what makes a documentary mainstream and celebrated, and who is doing the deciding?

Heading south of the U.S. border you realize other countries had their pioneering documentary women directors as well, like Venezuela’s Margot Benacerraf, whose documentary, Araya, shared the 1959 Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Critic’s Award with the more celebrated Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour. From Colombia there is Marta Rodríquez (Chiracles, 1972), who inspired generations of documentary filmmakers when she returned home after studying with Jean Rouch in Paris and has continued to direct, releasing Soraya: Amor no es Olvido in 2006.

Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies has championed, promoted and distributed films made by women from all over the world for 27 years. She says that at a recent awards ceremony she attended, she found it extraordinary to hear everyone talking about how much easier it is for women directing documentary than it is in fiction. Given that women documentary directors are still dogged by a continuing misperception that women’s subjects are “niche” or “too soft,” a predominance of white male programmers and jurors at festivals and the tendency of the big bucks to still go to male filmmakers, she found it a rather facile analysis of the situation.

In recent years, some progressive countries have enshrined gender equality in their official filmmaking policies. In 2005, Sweden passed Bill 2005/06:3 stipulating that women must comprise 40% of the scriptwriters, directors and producers receiving funding within the next five years. The Spanish parliament passed a law in 2006 saying that: “all things being equal, if a submitted proposal is written or directed by a woman, it will take precedence over one presented by a man.”

We had our moment in Canada back in 1974 when the National Film Board of Canada set up the world’s first “permanent” (dismantled in 1996) state-funded women’s film unit, called Studio D. Terre Nash, for one, feels lucky she had the unflagging support of the Studio and its head, Kathleen Shannon, to get her short documentary If You Love This Planet made. Given its U.S. Department of Justice designation as “foreign political propaganda,” things were a bit dicey for a while. But, luckily, validation came in the form of the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1982.

Getting those high profile awards is one of the issues Debra Zimmerman is grappling with: “I was really, really appalled to realize this year at Sundance, which is a particularly woman-friendly festival, that there’s still a majority of white males winning the awards.” With a preponderance of documentaries with “male subjects” being selected, can it be simply that guys make better films—or is it that the typical male subject choice and male narrative arc, often involving ambition and adventure—are just more obvious choices?

The bottom line is that male directors get the backing to create higher end feature documentaries (think Touching the Void or Man on Wire) that come with the bigger marketing dollars, ending up in the high profile festivals and thus we women of the documentary world find ourselves butting up against the same “celluloid ceiling” as our fiction sisters.

Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes, Act of God), one of the handful of Canadian women documentary directors with an international profile, thinks that we risk distorting things by examining the issue of documentary directors through the lens of gender. She says: “It’s fascinating to hear anything other than the main party line (i.e. middle-aged white male perspective). But I don’t want to turn that into a caricature. It’s not like there’s some kind of conspiracy, it’s just a default.”

My friend and fellow director Helene Klodawsky (No More Tears Sister, Malls R Us) talks about it as the “inside forces” and the “outside forces” with which women directors have to deal—the inside forces being what falls within our personal sphere of influence: questions of confidence and self-promotion, relationships with family and partners, time management issues. As one woman I spoke with hypothesized: not many male directors think too long and hard about whether to have a baby or make a film.

It’s impressive, the work being done by women like Elena Fortes, director of the traveling Mexican documentary festival Ambulante and Patricia Torres San Martín, researcher/co-ordinator of the thirteen-part documentary series on Latin American women directors called Opera Feminea, to promote women’s work outside Latin America.

It’s thanks to Ambulante that here in Montréal, thousands of kilometres north, I saw work by some of the current Mexican women documentary filmmakers —films like Lucía Gajá’s deeply disturbing account of Rosa Jiménez’ U.S. trial in Mi Vida Dentro, Natalia Almada’s beautifully crafted El General and Christiane Burkhard’s very moving Trazando Aleida. This year Ambulante, based in Mexico City, played in about twenty-five cities across Mexico and beyond.

When I write Fortes asking about the present situation there, she answers, “In Mexico, we definitely have a number of female directors, most of them making documentaries, who have been working in film for several decades, so it’s not a recent trend. However, it is a pretty sexist society, as you may imagine, so it is a fact that access to the film industry for women has been much more difficult than for men.“

She raises an interesting point that I’m assuming is more of a blatant issue in Latin culture—the pointy head of sexism—until I speak with Patty White, an academic working on a global assessment of women and cinema. She says, “There’s an erroneous assumption now that we’re post-feminist in North America and there’s plenty of women filmmakers so there’s no need to address the situation any further.” Complicating matters is the fact that there’s nobody really keeping tabs on all this, which makes it hard to create a statistical snapshot of where women documentary directors are at in 2010.

In Québec where I live and work, there is a group of sixty-three women directors called Réalisatrices Équitables (RÉ) advocating for equality for women in film financing. Until they came along in 2007 and began analyzing institutional film funding figures, everyone had assumed that women directors were doing just fine. RÉ’s main focus is on the dire situation for women directing fiction, but a study they issued in 2008 showed that between 2002 and 2007, women received a meager 10% of the almost billion dollars distributed by the Canadian Television Fund, then our biggest funding body.

Across Canada, almost two-thirds of the membership of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) is comprised of women. In these dire times of dysfunctional free market economies, ratings-obsessed media and broken distribution models, it means that women documentary directors, already in such a compromised position, will bear the brunt of the downturn in demand and production.

Volumes have been written on the political and economic impact on film culture in Latin American countries. With so many complex and different histories it’s impossible to make generalizations about the current situation for women documentary directors there. While the New Latin American Cinema, during the ’60s and ’70s, influenced the evolution of both fiction and non-fiction across much of that continent, there is a great cultural divide between countries that have enacted film legislation and the rest.

Recently, I had a late night phone call with Sonia Goldenberg (El Pais de los Saxos) in Lima, Peru. She laughed at my astonishment that there has never been a Ministry of Culture in the Peruvian government. Goldenberg worked recently with one of today’s documentary icons, fellow Peruvian Heddy Honigmann, on her sublime feature documentary Oblivion, which serves as poetic on-screen testimony to the resilience of the Peruvian working class. She tells me that with government funding for about three documentary films a year available in Peru, it’s difficult enough to be a documentary filmmaker whatever your sex.

At the other end of the spectrum I learn from Ricardo Respero, director of the Colombian Documentary Association, that their Minister of Culture is a woman as are the heads of the Colombian Film Commission, the Colombian Film Fund and the Ministry of Communication. A law enacted in 1997 declaring cinema a national patrimony has created conditions under which their film industry has been able to thrive, meaning good news for women documentary directors too.

A common thread running through many Latin American countries, particularly those struggling with a lack of government funding, volatile political situations and general economic deprivation are video activists and film collectives. In Nicaragua there is Puntos de Encuentro; in Chile, the Grupo Chaski; in Bolivia, the Grupo Ukamau; Cinemestizo in Columbia and in Mexico, CineMujer and Telemanita, amongst others. It’s an interesting correlation with the women’s New York film collectives of the ’70s, which was how many women got started making documentaries. Back then, as it is now, it’s about social and political activism and empowerment.

It makes me think of something Joan Churchill had said on our phone call: “I think all women are political filmmakers.” I hadn’t ever really thought of it like that but let’s face it, documentary is a notoriously underpaid, overly demanding job and men tend to go for the more lucrative ones.

A cinematographer and director (Asylum, Aileen Wuornos: Life and Death of a Serial Killer), Churchill has worked alongside names like Peter Watkins, Nick Broomfield and the “fathers of verité.” She’s catching up on sleep after doing a marathon eight-day shoot on Paul Haggis’s re-make of “We Are the World” for a Haitian relief effort when I call her up. “It’s less about the recognition and climbing over other people to get ahead for most women. I think they tend to make films about issues that they’re really passionate about and it’s not so much about making money,” she tells me.

“We’re interested in different things—absolutely, we have a totally different take on things from men, it’s in everything we do—we’re nurturing people, we bring up children and we’re not testosterone driven,” Churchill adds, “I’ve always felt it was an advantage to be a woman when shooting because you’re not considered a threat. You can get your foot in the door, you can get access that a guy wouldn’t get and people get emotional with you when they might not be so inclined to do so with a guy.”

The year My Country, My Country was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, its director, Laura Poitras, admitted to me that she couldn’t have spent nine months shooting in Iraq if she hadn’t been a woman: “I just wouldn’t have gotten the same kind of access if I had been a guy in Baghdad because of the way the gender divisions work in these cultures.”

When I caught up recently with her in New York, Poitras was still in her Sundance bubble from the launch of her new feature documentary The Oath, where she received the Excellence in Cinematography award with her co-cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson. She, like all the women directors I talk to, name women who have been instrumental in helping them get to where they are. I picture us all standing on the shoulders of each other, trying our damndest to crack through that resilient celluloid ceiling.

A woman, Nancy Hamilton, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature back in 1955 and we have won fifteen of them since then. By that tally women directing documentary are faring much better than their fiction sisters who only this year, with Kathryn Bigelow’s resounding victory, have finally been granted access to the Hollywood boys’ club. But it’s troubling that we still live in a time when women directors are reluctant to acknowledge “gender distinctions” or use the word “feminist” or need to tell male narratives rather than their own in order to be celebrated, because if film, whether documentary or fiction, is a mirror of who and what we are, then the current image is very distorted.

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