Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Where Are the First-Person Women Documentarians?

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With Tiffany Shlain’s personal documentary Connected wrapping up its theatrical run, Doc Soup Man Tom Roston asks why the best known first-person documentarians are men.

Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology

Connected: An Autoblogography about
Love, Death & Technology

There’s an interesting documentary that was released in select theaters this fall called Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology. The film premiered at Sundance in 2011 and is directed by Tiffany Shlain, a public speaker, filmmaker and all-around new-media and social-change powerhouse — She founded the Webby Awards.

(For more information about upcoming screenings of Connected — and how you can host your own — you can visit

I was struck by Shlain’s presence in Connected, a first-person essay about our new digital age and what we can do about the sense of alienation that we feel even while we’re so interdependent online.

First-person documentarians are a special breed. I mean, what really motivates them to go on camera in the first place? Michael Moore (Roger & Me) is the most obvious example. He’s a filmmaker who has strong opinions and who uses his on-camera persona to get his message across. You have to figure that there’s some ego involved there as well. The same goes for Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). I’d put both of those guys in the same group, although I think Spurlock is driven more by an innate class-clown personality. Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) and Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) are two more good ones who have tenacious spirits (but who can both credit more than half of their first-person success on charming accents).

There is also the Alan Berliner (Wide Awake, Nobody’s Business, The Sweetest Sound), Doug Block (51 Birch Street) and Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March, Bright Leaves) brand of first-person filmmaker. These are cerebral guys who are trying to work out their personal issues on camera. (If you can make a filmmaking career out of your own neurosis, I say, “go for it!”)

The list of name-brand first-person docmakers so far is suspiciously stacked with men, despite there being so many woman documentary directors. This is not to say that there aren’t women who haven’t broken the mold and made affecting first-person docs — Agnès Varda (The Beaches of Agnès), Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl, A Healthy Baby Girl), Amy Hardie (The Edge of Dreaming) and Pamela Yates (Granito) — but none has crossed over like one of their male counterparts.

To produce a Michael Moore-like “success,” will it take a woman with a trifecta of screen presence, ego and intelligence? Shlain has taken her shot. Here’s what I’d like to see: Ms. Tina Fey, how about making a doc?

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Simon Kilmurry

    Hi Tom,

    Some big ones you are missing – Dean Borshay Liem (First Person Plural, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee); Jennifer Fox (Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman); Deborah Hoffman (Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter); Kimberley Reed (Prodigal Sons); Barbara Sonneborn (Regret to Inform); Anne Makepeace (Baby It’s You); Esther Robinson (Danny Williams: A Walk into the Sea); Natalia Almada (El General), and I’m sure there are quite a few more we could add.

  • Penfold

    I don’t think it has anything to do with a lack of screen presence, ego and intelligence (Agnes Varda has all of that to spare) but rather that women’s opinions are not as valued as much as the opinions of men are (still).  It’s okay for women to make documentaries where they interview men for their opinions, but their personal stories and voices aren’t valued as much, as this writer of this article demonstrates.  He thinks the right woman hasn’t come along yet, but there are many of them in right front of him, he just can’t see it.  

  • Tom Roston

    I’m talking about a cultural phenomenon wherein women first-person directors have yet to cross over to great mainstream success. I am trying to draw attention to that fact, and to encourage discussion about that. 

  • June

    The first person documentary is a subset of documentary.  If you examined the totality of documentary work, you would see more women filmmakers who direct documentaries. 

    There’s also academy-award nominated Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country), Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (Joan Rivers: Piece of Work and other successful docs.) and Barbara Koepple.  The documentaries Herb & Dorothy and one going to Sundance about artist Ai Weiwei were directed by women.

    Now back to your more specific point about first person documentaries.  Why can’t we be happy with the fact that women are making documentaries that are accepted to Sundance and winning Academy Awards.    I think the first person doc has ruined good storytelling and would rather an egoless women tell me an excellent story.

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