March is Women’s History Month so it makes sense to recognize the fact that the documentary industry is largely run by women. As I’ve discussed before, some of the most powerful people in docs are women (Cara Mertes, Sheila Nevins, Diane Weyermann, Ally Derks, Molly Thompson, etc.) and some of the most prominent doc directors are also women (Liz Garbus & Rory Kennedy; Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg; Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady; Barbara Kopple; Margaret Brown).
But wait, when’s the last time a woman director won an Oscar? Not since 2004’s Born into Brothels (Zana Briski who codirected with Ross Kaufman). And then you have to go back to the early 90s when a string of women were collecting gold, including Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision) and Barbara Kopple (American Dream). Although it is true that a lot of women producers have collected Oscars, such as this year (Audrey Marrs for Inside Job), they’re not at the helm.
And, you know what, take a look at the top grossing documentaries of all time; it’s pretty much all male directors (Mad Hot Ballroom‘s Marilyn Agrelo and Tupac Resurrection‘s Lauren Lazin being two of the few exceptions).
With all of this in mind, I set out to put out a list of my top ten list of the best documentaries about women. . . but I can’t do it. I am sure many of you out there can, so this is a mea culpa of sorts. Sad to say, but when I reflect on my favorite documentaries, ones that focus on a woman or women-specific themes are too few to count. (Grey Gardens [inset] and Henry Jaglom’s Eating are great ones, sure;
The Business of Being Born, The
Beaches of Agnès, Madonna: Truth or Dare, Anne Frank: Remembered,
and Shut Up and Sing are all very good but not great, in my book.)
To put myself out there as a human punching bag: Is this my male-focused fault? (Yes, I noticed that my three favorite docs about women are all directed by men.) Or a problem with the sort of documentaries that get produced? Or is there a fallacy in this mission to begin with?
I’ll address that last question first (shout out to @pizzamouth, for keeping things honest). A vast majority of the great documentaries focus on issues that apply to both women and men, so they are human stories. You can’t really divide them. So maybe it’s not right to do a woman-only list. And yet, you can’t argue that for every film about a famous woman (Ayn Rand, Tammy Faye) there are twenty about famous men (Glenn Gould, Robert McNamara, Frank Gehry, Robert Evans, Philippe Petit, R. Crumb, etc., etc.).
Here’s my list of ten favorite documentaries about men, which I came up with in a snap:
- The Kid Stays in the Picture
- Thin Blue Line
- Paradise Lost
- Paris is Burning
- Grizzly Man
- In the Realms of the Unreal
- Man on Wire
When I told POV that I was coming up short, my editor cried foul and responded with a strong list that the POV staff came up with. It includes, in no particular order:
- Love and Diane
- Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
- The September Issue
- The Gleaners and I
- Grey Gardens
- Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter
- Regret to Inform
- Corpus: A Home Movie For Selena
- The Execution of Wanda Jean
- Aileen: Life and Death of A Serial Killer
- Chisholm ’72
- My Flesh and Blood
- Southern Comfort
- Sister Rose’s Passion
- They Killed Sister Dorothy
- A Litany for Survival
OK, I forgot about Aileen and Southern Comfort, both great docs, so that would have given me a list of five. I personally wouldn’t champion some of the ones they proposed, but, still, it looks like I have some watching to do. I also plan to keep this in mind over the next year as I decide which docs to watch.
So, what do you think: is there a dearth of docs focused on women? Also, let’s hear your list: What would you recommend as the best docs about women?
Independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.