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.