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

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When Will the Women of the Documentary World Get Their Due?

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Read an update on this post.

Director Jehane Noujaim of The Square (Photo: Noujaim Films)

Jehane Noujaim, director of the 2013 Academy-Award nominated documentary The Square. (Photo: Noujaim Films)

When this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary were announced, there was murmuring that it was unfortunate, even unfair, that only one of the nominees, Jehane Noujaim, was a woman. My favorite film of the year, Stories We Tell, directed by Sarah Polley, didn’t make the list. And neither did another seeming front-runner directed by a woman, Blackfish, helmed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Since then, Noujaim, who directed the incredible The Square, has been touted as the only female nominee, the implication being that Academy members should vote for her for that reason.

Does this warrant consideration? As our president noted in his recent State of the Union Address, we live in a country where women make 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes. And yet, anyone who’s ever been to a documentary industry event of any stripe is familiar with the fact that documentaries are largely produced by, controlled by, supported by and loved by women.

Is there a disparity, or an unequal playing field, in documentaries?

I’m not providing scientific analysis here, and I’d welcome any fact and figures that could provide hard data on this issue. On the surface, there are many women in positions of influence, from kickass individuals like Cara Mertes, who recently made the move from Sundance to the Ford Foundation, to Sheila Nevins, Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller at HBO Documentaries (possibly the most powerful power base in nonfiction) to Molly Thompson at A&E Indie Films to the team at the kickass funder Chicken & Egg (which supports docs directed by women) to the women at the highest-profile PBS documentary series (Cynthia Lòpez of POV, Raney Aronson-Rath of FRONTLINE and Sally Jo Fifer and Lois Vossen of ITVS/Independent Lens) and so on.

The film festivals, powerful gatekeepers in themselves, have women well represented at the top or in senior programmers, from Ally Derks (IDFA), Charlotte Cook (Hot Docs), Janet Pierson (SXSW), Sky Sitney (AFI Docs), Sadie Tillery (Full Frame), Caroline Libresco (Sundance), Jane Rosenthal and Genna Terranova (Tribeca), etc.

On the other hand, most of the theatrical distributors of documentaries are controlled by men, from Magnolia to The Weinstein Company, IFC, Sony Pictures Classics and Oscilloscope, for example.

The only study I came across was a couple years old, by San Diego State University, which found that 39% of documentaries at the top film festivals were directed by women. That compares to the 18% of narrative features directed by women. That doesn’t tell us about power, necessarily, but it’s instructive.

Overall, I think it’s fair to say that within the documentary community, women are highly respected, from the legends (Barbara Kopple, Chris Hegedus, Agnès Varda, Kim Longinotto, Penelope Spheeris, Ondi Timoner) to the newer forces (Noujaim, Laura Poitras, Lucy Walker, Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Amy Berg, Margaret Brown, etc., etc.) It’s silly to even list them, because the list would just go on and on.

And yet, the biggest names in documentaries, in the public eye, the ones with the biggest theatrical impact and name recognition, are men — Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, and older legends such as Albert Maysles, D A Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman. What woman has the same standing as those guys? Kopple doesn’t quite have the star power. And it would be a stretch to bring up Leni Riefenstahl here.

And take a look at the top 20 grossing documentaries of all time: only two were directed by women (Katy Perry: Part of Me, co-directed by Jane Lipsitz, and Mad Hot Ballroom, by Marilyn Agrelo). And, wouldn’t you know it, both of those films skew toward female audiences. The only other documentary in that top 20 that is focused on a woman is Madonna: Truth or Dare. The rest are about men or animals. (I’ll leave the punch line blank here.)

And, back to the point, look at the winners of the Best Documentary Oscar from the past 20 years. Only three were directed, or co-directed, by women. There are another two that were produced by women who also received Oscars (Eva Orner for Taxi to the Darkside, and Audrey Marrs for Inside Job). But five out of 20 is a pretty dispiriting record for an industry in which women appear to have an equal creative footing.

When it comes to awards and accolades, when we are put in the silly position of valuing one documentary over another, the films themselves should be recognized on their own merits, more than the people behind them. Of course, it’s not really that simple, because some films should also be recognized for the impact they can have on society, which would suggest we do need to look beyond the frame. For instance, An Inconvenient Truth is really not that great a film, but it had such an important message and impact on the real world, that I think it deserves its Oscar.

So should greater wrongs be corrected with an Academy vote? I’m not sure. Fortunately, The Square is such a fine documentary, that in this instance, the question may be moot. It could win on its own merits. Which is the way it should be.

Update 2/5/2014: It was an error on my part to not mention producers Signe Byrge Sørensen (The Act of Killing), Lydia Dean Pilcher (Cutie and the Boxer) and Caitrin Rogers (20 Feet From Stardom), because they are each nominated, along with male directors, for their respective films. 20 feet from stardom, indeed. Although the point of this post was to focus on women directors who are considered the primary authors of their films, I’ve still, ironically, managed to diminish the roles of these women who deserve to have their contributions honored. I apologize to all.

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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
  • Annie Roney

    There is a simple reason for this, in my opinion. Magnolia, The Weinstein Company, IFC, Sony Pictures Classics and Oscilloscope overwhelmingly see films at film festivals represented by sales agents. Sales agents choose their films based on their estimated commercial potential, but also choose films that personally resonate with them. There are only a handful of individual sales agents (not talent agencies) who represent these films. THEY ARE ALL MEN. I know this because for a short time I felt compelled to represent the North American rights to some films that I loved, that were turned down by the usual sales agents (Pray the Devil Back to Hell, for example). I was witness to a lightbulb moment by an executive at one of the theatrical companies listed above (who will go nameless), that they only see films at festivals that have sales agents attached – and that they were all men — and therefore he may have been missing films that had more appeal to women. I would never pick our films by the gender of the filmmaker and I am sure theatrical companies don’t either, but as a foreign sales agent I do pick films that resonate with me. Given that I am a woman, it’s fair to say that some of the films that resonate with me – might not resonate with my male colleagues. The result is that the films that get acquired, distributed theatrically, and eventually eligible for Oscars, are more than likely represented and brought to the market by a male sales agent, who also loved the film. There’s nothing wrong with that – unless they are the only ones in the game. The solution: we need more women in the business of selling films.

    • Tom Roston

      The sales agent factor was on my mind, but I didn’t mention it, because I could have said that Submarine and Cinetic dominate (both run by men), but didn’t have much else. Thanks for this report from the trenches.

      • mwblock

        Sales agents don’t sell the film–the film sells the film. Audiences don’t care who directed or produced the film only if they liked the film. Since filmmaking is a business, the business doesn’t care about the gender of the filmmaker only how successful their film is commercially or how many people watch it or buy it. No distributor or television exec turned down a work that would make money or get viewers because of the sex of the director. Films box office or viewership is a function of their content not the gender of their creator. It strikes me that when directors make more commercial films they work more. Both of the Academy Award nominated films I produced/executive produced were directed by women. (One won an Oscar.) Finally, the doc branch of the Academy is almost 40% women. They nominate the docs. With preferential voting they (and all voters) have a lot of power to get films short listed and then nominated. So I don’t think one can now blame “the Academy” for the results.

  • Vito

    LA Times did a lot of digging to track down members of the Academy. The results: only 2% are under 40 years old, 96% are white, and 77% are male.

    I’m sure that they can all appreciate good work, but it is not outside the scope of the imagination that one specific demographic would be partial to films and topics made by its peers.

    • Tom Roston

      wow, i knew it skewed that way, but not to that degree.


    Jehane is not the sole nominee. One of The Act of Killing’s two nominees, Signe Byrge Sørensen, is a woman!

  • Tom Roston

    Yes: I made a colossal error in not mentioning that three (THREE!) of the films have women producers who have been nominated this year. They may not be the directors but they are nominees nonetheless. Full correction, and apology, to come tomorrow.

  • Heidi Millay

    Love this conversation. I work at First Run – over one third of the docs we released last year were directed or co-directed by women (and if you include producers, which I would if I had the info in front of me, that percentage skyrockets). So I’m not sure the problem *necessarily* lies in, or is confined to, the area of sales/distribution.

    Also, as an aside, 40% of our staffers are women (and I’ve seen it be as high as 60% in my 8+ years here), so even though our president is a man, I wouldn’t say that means we (as a distributor) are “controlled by men.” We all have a say in acquisitions. I’m sure it’s not that way everywhere, but I’m pleased to say it is here.

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  • Wendy Levy

    So glad this discussion is happening. Tom, thanks for the data that informs your pov. It is startling and not at all surprising. I don’t get nearly as upset that women aren’t nominated for Academy Awards, since so many of the best films and performances go unrewarded, as I do about the boys club that makes the rules and perpetuates the exclusion. As Annie also notes, more women in positions of influence in the industry will result in a more equitable culture. It’s not just that we need more women sales agents (we do). And not just that we need more badass women producers and directors (we do) – and they deserve more awards for sure — but ultimately and immediately, we need smart women heads of companies, decision-makers, bankers, visionary industry thinkers with clout — who intentionally defy the paternalistic boundaries that exclude women and people of color, valuing profit over substance and meaning, refusing to mentor and take real risks with emerging artists, and instead, parachute in like a hero to buy the work think will line their pockets most.

    I could go on, but always appreciate the opportunity to raise a little hell.

  • Aga

    hire a fiftish guy in a courdory suit? why? because people like stories to be told. A story of a filmmaker features some corduroy and a fiftyish male. Don’t fight the system – use it. I’ts the only way. And also – do some didactic asswhooping

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  • Beatriz Jean Wallace

    I am so grateful that you wrote this article. I think about these issues ALL the time – when I’m running, eating Sunday breakfast, practicing yoga… It’s hard to shake. As a professor of documentary film, and a filmmaker myself, I SO value this validation and public attention to a quantitatively measurable, and measured problem.

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  • DorothyP

    Lots of women work in reality TV and magazine shows but don’t make the leap to feature docs.

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