Filmmaker Shirley Clarke with slate and monitor
Doc History

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Barbara Kopple: The Pioneering Women of Documentary Film

July 11, 2016 by Maryann Johanson in Film History

When we talk about the early years of cinema, there is no separating “the history of women in film” from “the history of film.” Women have been there from the beginning, and have shaped the medium in transformative ways.

Early Women Pioneers in the Shadows of Men

The idea that films could tell stories as opposed to documenting reality was hit upon by a woman, Alice Guy-Blaché, who made the very first narrative movie, the 60-second-long La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896. (It was also the longest film made up to that point.) And the filmmaker who arguably created the modern documentary form was Leni Riefenstahl with 1935’s Triumph of the Will. (More on her and that film in a bit.) Women have always gotten short shrift when it comes to acknowledging their contributions, but that’s not a reflection of the inestimable value of their work. Movies simply would not look and feel the way they do today without the input of women artists and innovators.

The very first films of any kind, in the late 19th century, documented mundane events: surgical operations; studies of people with physical ailments; and most famously, those clips of workers leaving a factory and a train pulling into a station. The first film generally considered, in retrospect, to be a documentary — though the word had not yet been coined — is 1922’s Nanook of the North, an ethnographic study of an Inuit family in the Canadian Arctic. But just as the field was being born, women were already starting to be erased from it. Filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty is credited as the sole creator of Nanook as well as other similar, successful films — including 1926’s Moana, about a young Samoan man in the South Pacific — but the evidence is strong that his wife and creative partner, Frances H. Flaherty, was in fact very much his co-director, co-writer, and co-producer on many if not all of “his” films. [Read more about early silent ethnographic and “adventure” documentaries.]

Much the same can likely be said of Osa Johnson: her legacy has languished in the shadow of her husband, Martin Johnson. Adventurers as well as filmmakers, they turned a two-year African safari into 1923’s hugely successful Trailing Wild African Animals. The sensationalism of their earlier, equally successful films — such as 1918’s Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific, documenting another of their trips — may be all that prevents them from being deemed authentic “documentaries,” and thus predating Nanook. In Martin Johnson’s own words, Osa could do “a man’s share” of work with a camera, and was “a perfect partner” for him as a “Motion Picture Explorer.” Yet only Martin Johnson is credited as director of the films they made together.

African American Women Filmmakers

More happily, Zora Neale Hurston, perhaps the first African American filmmaker, is overshadowed as a director only by herself as a novelist (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and playwright. The short ethnographic films she made — Children’s Games (1928), Logging (1928), and Baptism (1929) — were probably made as research for her writing, but they are considered foundational works of visual anthropology, and rare examples of the everyday lives of ordinary black people in the American South of the era. [Some footage from this work can be seen in the sample here.]

One possible earlier contender for first African American women documentary filmmaker is Jennie Louis Van Der Zee (sister of famous Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee), who is said to have directed a film about black soldiers in World War I as part of a larger documentary series. But very little information about this film appears to have survived, including when it was produced; Van Der Zee may well have been one of the first documentary filmmakers of any race or gender. She is a particular egregious example of how the work of women (and of people of color) is lost because it was poorly recorded and archived in the first place.

The arrival of sound revolutionized movies and turned them into big business, which is when women were pushed almost entirely out of the most powerful positions in the American industry. (In the silent era, before major corporations took over, women owned more production companies than men did.) There also were arguably little or no significant documentaries produced in the U.S. in the early 1930s. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when the documentary arrived in the sound era, and arrived with a sweeping cultural force, it did so from far outside Hollywood.

Leni Riefenstahl

With 1935’s Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl didn’t merely document the 1934 Nazi Party Congress, shaping it into a propagandistic glorification of the German people and nation, and of Adolf Hitler as its savior. She created startling, striking imagery that endures to this day as shorthand for Nazism and also for fascism in general; we see visuals she devised repeated in, for instance, the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens.

Riefenstahl may have won major awards for Triumph at the 1935 Venice Biennale and the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris, but she also saw her work sampled satirically by Frank Capra, in his Why We Fight series meant to inspire the US to join World War II, and mocked by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Inarguably, though, her film transcended itself to become iconic in ways that no documentary ever had before, and very few have since. And her legacy transcends the film itself as well, raising questions that continue to be endlessly debated: What do the morality and ethics of documentary filmmaking entail? Where do we draw a line between documentary and propaganda, and how acceptable is it when lines are blurred?

This one film alone would be enough to cement Riefenstahl as the pioneer of documentaries, but then she went on to make 1938’s Olympia, about the 1936 Games in Berlin, the first great film about the Olympics. As with Triumph of the Will, its technical innovations dazzled, showing off the dynamism Riefenstahl deployed as a filmmaker: between the two films, she pioneered exciting new uses of aerial photography, unusual camera angles, aggressive editing and music, and other techniques we take for granted today. It’s almost impossible to overstate her influence not just on documentaries but on all filmmaking.

British Groundbreakers

Parallel to this, in the U.K., John Grierson — who is said to have coined the word “documentary” in 1926 — was essentially inventing the British documentary, but what is often forgotten in mentions of his foundational work are his filmmaker sisters, Marion and Ruby, who arguably deserve co-credit as the national genre’s originators. Ruby’s first work was directing one of the two stories that make up 1937’s To-Day We Live: A Film of Life in Britain. An early example of social documentary, it looks at ordinary people working to improve themselves and their communities and features some iconic imagery of Depression-era Britain; Ruby’s segments highlight an empathy and rapport with her subjects that presaged the later intimacy we would come to expect from onscreen depictions of regular people.

Her last film, 1940’s They Also Serve, is a dramatized documentary about all the unseen support housewives brought to the war effort, and is remarkably feminist in its appreciation of what we would today call “emotional labor.” That same year, Ruby died on the SS City of Benares when it was torpedoed by a German sub; she was making a film about child evacuees to Canada. She may have been one of the first documentary filmmakers to die in the course of her work.

Marion Grierson’s films were of a lighter sort: she mostly made promotional films intended to attract tourists to England, but they’re also charming documents of British life and locales of the time. Her 1933 short So This Is London is a gorgeously photographed snapshot of a great city in the years before it’s beset by a tumultuous war, while 1937’s Around the Village Green captures, with a wise foresight, a quintessential English community that was even then being radically transformed, and which no longer exists in the same form today.

from Around the Village Green, boys in 1930s England play around an old pillory
From “Around the Village Green”

Another notable woman of the era is Mary Field, who helped pioneer educational filmmaking as well as the nature documentary. In her delightful 1932 film The Mystery of Marriage, which looks at the courtship rituals of humans and other creatures with humor and verve, we see the roots of every film about the natural world that Richard Attenborough would later make.

World War II saw huge growth in the documentary field, serving not only morale-boosting propaganda to civilians on both sides of the Atlantic but also offering practical information on making do in a time of deprivation.

National Film Board of Canada

Canada’s first known female filmmaker was a documentarian, Judith Crawley, who directed the first Canadian film to be shot in color, 1940’s Four New Apple Dishes, which is precisely what the title suggests: cooking tips for making apples as appealing as possible. During the war she also made the short Who Sheds His Blood, about the importance of blood donation. (Specializing in working with children, Crawley may win the award for Best Educational Film Title for her 1948 short Why Won’t Tommy Eat? about how parents can cope with picky eaters.)

Crawley’s films were produced for the National Film Board of Canada, as were those of Laura Boulton, an American freelancer for the organization, who directed a series of anthropological shorts. Her films about Inuit culture became internationally famous, and her work helped cement the NFB as a major force in national filmmaking. Jane Marsh, working for the NFB, made the only war propaganda that might reasonably be deemed unabashedly feminist: 1942’s Women Are Warriors, about women on the front in Allied nations, and 1943’s Proudly She Marches (which snarkily knocks down notions of women as little more than decorative objects for men’s appreciation) and Wings on Her Shoulder, about the Woman’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Other Women of the World

On the other side of the world, Japan’s first female filmmaker, Tazuko Sakane, spent three years in Manchuria during the war, where she directed 10 documentaries about conditions there. Sadly, most of these films no longer exist, which is perhaps indicative of the value that was placed on her work as a woman in Japan, where the industry (and culture at large) was even more notoriously male-dominated than the West’s. The freedom she had during the war disappeared in peacetime, when she could no longer find work as a director and was reduced to working as a script girl.

Back in Britain, Jill Craigie was inventing the activist documentary with her feature-length The Way We Live, which was released cinematically with general distribution in 1946. A shift from the government propaganda of the war years, it presented a new vision for urban living that could be implemented as the country rebuilt itself after wartime bombing. [Note: The entire film is available to watch on YouTube.] She would later direct 1951’s To Be a Woman, an early argument for equal pay for women.

From Jill Craigie's "The Way We Live", an English street scene in 1940s
From Jill Craigie’s “The Way We Live”

Stateside in the postwar years, Helen Grayson was the only female director within the U.S. Office of War Information, making documentaries like 1945’s The Cummington Story, about the assimilation of wartime refugees into a small New England town, and 1947’s Starting Line, about premature babies. But with wartime funding of filmmakers drying up on both sides of the Atlantic, and no real alternative source of funding to replace it, opportunities for women filmmakers were disappearing.

Shirley Clarke

By the 1950s, documentaries by women were moving into the realm of the independent and the experimental, such as American Shirley Clarke’s Skyscraper (1959), which was nominated an Oscar and is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. (Clarke would direct another Oscar for her 1963 film, Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World.)

Her most important piece may be 1967’s Portrait of Jason, a groundbreaking work of LGBT cinema. An immersive, avant garde interview with a gay African American hustler and cabaret performer as he tells his life story, this provocative work was inducted last year into the National Film Registry, reserved for works that the US Library of Congress deems “culturally significant.” The film is radical in how Clarke injects herself into the narrative, prodding and poking her subject in a way that documentarians such as Michael Moore would later wholly embrace. [Learn more about Shirley Clarke with this retrospective piece from Edinburgh Film Festival.]

Agnès Varda

“I’m not interested in seeing a film just made by a woman — not unless she is looking for new images.”

Another important, influential woman documentarian began to work in the 1950s: French filmmaker Agnès Varda. The documentary style that the French New Wave movement would ape was influenced by her films, not just the many documentary shorts she directed in the 1950s and ’60s but also in her narrative films, which frequently borrowed documentary tropes.

Filmmaker Agnes Varda, with camera
Filmmaker Agnes Varda

One of her most revered early documentary shorts is 1958’s Diary of a Pregnant Woman, an impressionistic, sometimes absurdist portrait of a Parisian neighborhood, warts and all, through the eye of a pregnant woman (as Varda herself was). It represents a uniquely feminine — and feminist — sense of authority and philosophy onscreen in that era, a uniqueness that, alas, remains in what is still a male-dominated industry. Though Varda continues to dazzle audiences and critics alike into the 2000s with docs such as The Gleaners & I and The Beaches of Agnès, her legend was settled long ago. In 2015, she became the first woman to receive an honorary Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival.

New Day Films

Independent financing and distribution was pretty much the only way to go for documentary filmmakers through the ’60s and ’70s, and securing such support was even tougher for female filmmakers of that era than it is today. So in 1971, Liane Brandon — whose groundbreaking short docs include Anything You Want to Be and Betty Tells Her Story, Julia Reichert (in 2020 an Oscar winner for American Factory), Jim Klein, and Amalie Rothschild — whose 1971’s short It Happens to Us is a plea for legalized abortion — founded the feminist filmmaking cooperative New Day Films for non-theatrical distribution of socially progressive documentaries. [You can find more of the New Day origin story here.]

New Day has fostered Oscar-winning and -nominated docs including 1985’s Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements, by Deborah Shaffer, and 2002’s The Collector of Bedford Street, by Alice Elliott. Once again, women documentary filmmakers blazed new ground not only for themselves but for all filmmakers: New Day was the very first distributor to be run entirely by and for filmmakers.

Another documentary — and filmmaking — first from the early ’70s is the 1973 debut on PBS of what is considered the first “reality TV,” the 12-part vérité series An American Family. Co-directed by Susan Raymond (with her husband, Alan), it rocked American ideals about family, broaching in a powerful, intimate way such topics as divorce and homosexuality as they impacted an ordinary suburban family. The controversy surrounding the series as it aired raised questions we are still debating today, including how the presence of cameras and the awareness of an audience alters behavior.

Barbara Kopple

The truly modern era of documentaries — as feature films with sharp, overt, unapologetic agendas, yet shaped to be as moving and as entertaining as fictional narratives — arguably began with Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, from 1976, which covered a deeply contentious, year-long miners’ strike in Kentucky from less a journalistic angle than an editorial one.

The film would win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature — and it is also included in the National Film Registry as “culturally significant” — but it was “accused” by some of offering only one perspective: that of the miners. This is, of course, absolutely the case: Kopple gave a voice to workers that they hadn’t previously had, something their corporate bosses didn’t lack. Kopple would go on to make another Oscar-winning documentary feature, 1991’s American Dreams (about another strike), but with Harlan County, the documentary as partisan polemic, inspired by the activist 1960s, reached maturity.

For more of MaryAnn’s writing, go to her website:

Maryann Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer from New York now based in London. Her pioneering film criticism site, which debuted in 1997, is one of the longest-running movie resources online.