From Solar Mamas

From Solar Mamas

March is Women’s History Month, and, like a lot of people, of course, I feel like women should be honored and celebrated every day of the year, but the idea behind an official month is to, as stated on the Library of Congress site, “more officially pay tribute to the generations of women whose commitment to nature and the planet have proved invaluable to society.” You can read more about the month here. [International Women’s Day, by the way, is March 8.] To celebrate women, we’ve compiled a list of just a few documentary films (both Independent Lens films and others) about important and fascinating women, including a few available to watch online via PBS.

[View all Independent Lens films about women and girls by searching here under topic.]

Solar Mamas [currently streaming online via PBS, and up for quite awhile] is the inspiring story of a Bedouin mother who joins 30 other illiterate women learning to become solar engineers at the Barefoot College in India. A review on Patheos: “As I mentioned in a previous review, what I absolutely love about this film is the absence of a narrative commentary. The women, and Rafea in particular, are given an unmediated platform to speak for themselves. Without even the addition of a soundtrack, the story unfolds naturally — and is, refreshingly, not a story about a man, an institution or a Western saviour swooping down on disenfranchised women ready to rescue them from their oppression. This is a story about women having the opportunity to do it for themselves and succeeding.”

The Revolutionary Optimists: In this rewarding film by Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen, it’s girls who are making history, in a marginalized Calcutta slum neighborhood. “Change may be elusive, Optimists confirms, but the will to make it blazes,” wrote Michelle Orange. [Available to rent on-demand on Amazon and other sites.]

Half the Sky: You recently watched this powerful series’ acclaimed follow-up, A Path Appears; now revisit the original program, based on Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s groundbreaking book. [DVD on Shop PBS; also streaming on Amazon.] The series, which travels around the world to show us courageous people fighting back against the oppression of women and girls worldwide, was called “beautifully filmed, alternately heartbreaking and inspiring” by The New York Times.

The Invisible War is a game-changing investigative documentary about one of America’s most shameful and best kept secrets: the epidemic of rape in the military. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, and accomplished an enormous amount in raising awareness of the issue and working toward changing the way it’s handled by military law. [In fact you can read about its campaigns and achievements here.]

Strong! [streaming on Amazon] has “a universal appeal beyond the world of women’s weightlifting,” wrote Amanda Rykoff on ESPN. “Haworth proves herself to be not only a champion competitor but also a compelling documentary subject, comfortable in front of the camera and in her own skin. Both the filmmaker and the subject hope that Strong! can provide women with a new image of physical fitness, strength and beauty, and also with the confidence to challenge themselves. Here are more great films (not Independent Lens but we love ’em anyway) about women:

  • Chisholm ’72, which aired on POV, is a skillful portrait of the Brooklyn congresswoman who mounted a long-shot campaign to become President. “Hearing her speak her finely honed mind in unscripted, un-‘handled’ terms is worth the price of admission in itself,” wrote David Sterritt in the Christian Science Monitor. [Streaming on Sundance Doc Club.]
  • 20 Feet From Stardom: Oscar-winning doc about longtime backup singers is, quite simply, a delight [streaming on Netflix and elsewhere].
  • The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter is an oldie but a goodie. Connie Field’s lovely, important doc explores the influx of women — black and white, urban and rural, poor and middle-class — into previously male-dominated workplaces in World War II. “Consummately skilful in articulating vital political issues through a strong sense of humour,” wrote TimeOut.
  • MAKERSMulti-part documentary series that tells the known and unknown stories of women in the areas of war, space, comedy, business, Hollywood, and politics. These stories share women’s contributions to some of the most important moments in the history of our country and the world. You can watch MAKERS episodes online on
  • Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work [streaming on Netflix and Amazon], and Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me [streaming on Netflix], both one of a kind women who broke ground in the entertainment field (and both sadly recently left us). Stritch was an uncompromising Tony- and Emmy Award-winning actress whose personality and talent shine through in this intimate documentary; Rivers was a sharp-tongued, sharp-minded comedienne who navigated through a male-dominated world for decades.
  • The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl [available on DVD from various retailers] is a probing portrait of a complex woman who was both a groundbreaking artist and yet aligned with the brutal Nazi regime for whom she made propaganda.”This movie is fascinating in so many different ways,” wrote Roger Ebert. “As the story of an extraordinary life, as the reconstruction of the career of one of the greatest of film artists, as the record of an ideological debate, as a portrait of an amazing old woman.” [Suggested by The Filmatelist (@Filmatelist) on Twitter.]

For further reading, may we suggest these Women and Girls Lead resources, including an extensive catalog of films. The films above are but a sampling of many excellent documentaries about women past and present. Feel free to make other recommendations for Women’s History Month here in the comments, or @IndependentLens on Twitter (#WomensHistoryMonth).

Rosie the Riveter poster