Documentary is perhaps one of the best mediums for telling the stories of extraordinary women and the experiences that shape them. The powerful women in these films have travelled the world, smashed global glass ceilings and cracked male-dominated industries, all in a day’s work. Here’s 10 of our favourite docs about women to empower and inspire….
- Speed Sisters (dir. Amber Fares)
For us, it doesn’t get more politically and socially subversive than a documentary about the first all-female race car team in the Middle East. Living under Israeli occupation means that Palestinian race-car enthusiasts have it harder than most. Balancing their busy personal and family lives, the drivers must cultivate makeshift tracks and be careful to avoid checkpoints at the risk of being arrested and imprisoned. For the all-female members of the Speed Sisters, being a woman in a traditionally male industry makes the challenge even more difficult, and they must risk life and limb to succeed. This documentary intertwines the women’s lives both on and off the track, from their relationships with their parents to religion and coping with life under occupation, creating a powerful story of friendship, bravery, and struggle.
2. Look At Us Now, Mother! (dir. Gayle Kirschenbaum)
From wishing she were dead to travelling around Europe side by side, Gayle Kirschenbaum’s relationship with her mother has been far from straightforward. Growing up the filmmaker constantly fell short of her mother’s soaring expectations. Being labeled as “too fat”, “too Jewish looking”, and with “too heavy an accent”, the filmmaker spent her childhood resenting her mother’s constant criticism and goading. As an adult, she decided to repair their relationship and learn to love the woman who raised her, attempting to transform an age old rivalry into a relationship of understanding and unconditional love. The self-exploring documentary Look At Us Now, Mother! investigating the complex relationship between mother and daughter using home movies and self-shot footage of her upbringing.
3. 20 Feet From Stardom (dir. Morgan Neville)
20 Feet From Stardom is the story of five women whose incredible voices have propelled them to perform in front of some of the largest audiences in history. Yet despite their incredible musical gifts, fans would be hard-pressed to recognise these stars in the street. The reason is that each of them have spent their careers working as backing singers, never having made the short walk forward to the front of the stage. A compelling investigation on the nature of celebrity, the documentary follows some of the world’s most notable backing singers from Merry Clayton, who toured with the Rolling Stones, to The Voice contestant Judith Hill. With haunting raw vocals from women of mind-blowing talent, 20 Feet From Stardom asks if skill and ambition are enough to sell millions of records, and questions who the real stars are behind the mainstream acts.
4. Sonita (dir. Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami)
Sonita is only 18 years old yet has suffered more hardship than many experience in a lifetime. An Afghan refugee living in a shelter in Iran, Sonita has been forced from her country and must process the trauma of war through counselling. Yet after having established a humble life for herself as a cleaner in Tehran, she is terrified when her estranged mother stumbles back in to her life with a dreadful intention: to sell her daughter as a bride for the equivalent of £7000. Filmed over three years, it is fascinating to watch Sonita’s story unfold as filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s becomes increasingly involved and weaved into her life. Audiences will be drawn to the special relationship between Ghaemmaghami and Sonita, as she fights to keep her in Iran and safe from the girl from her family’s ideals.
5. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (dir. Anni Sundberg & Ricki Stern)
The name Joan Rivers can raise more than a few eyebrows in feminist discussions. Mouthy, outspoken and undeniably catty, Rivers spent the four years leading to her death calling out other women’s clothing choices in the E! Network show Fashion Police. Yet despite her rancorous public persona, this documentary on her life and work paints a picture of a woman who pioneered the female comedy scene and took no prisoners along the way. Embodying the ‘bitch’ persona often cloaked over confident women, Rivers paved the way for other women to publicly speak their minds, yet was not without her own worries, prejudices and fears. Allowing their character to transcend the stereotyped duality of either heroine or victim, the filmmaking duo ensure that Rivers develops in her own words, allowing her to emerge as the robust and complex woman that she was.
6. Rough Aunties (dir. Kim Longinotto)
Kim Longinotto has long been on the frontline of documentary’s feminist filmmakers, portraying the unique voices of women from child brides to aspiring female wrestlers. One of her best and most poignant films is Rough Aunties, a feature documentary on a group of women dedicated to caring for abandoned or abused children in Durban, South Africa. Volunteers at the charity Bobbi Bear, the women provide counselling and befriending services to children who have experienced terrible sexual abuse and trauma, providing them with ways to explain what has happened to them and supporting them in their recoveries. Brave, resolute and wonderfully articulate on the issues that face abused and forgotten children, the Rough Aunties are a force to be reckoned with.
7. Anita (dir. Freida Lee Mock)
One of the first publicly acknowledged sexual harassment trials, the face of Anita Hill was on the cover of every newspaper in America in 1991 when she first came forward with allegations against her boss, supreme court judge Clarence Thomas. Whilst working as his assistant, Anita told courts how Clarence repeatedly made lewd, sexually graphic comments and continued to pursue her romantically despite her protests. Her story transformed in to a mass public debate on the treatment of workplace sexual harassment cases, and eventually led president Bush to pass a bill allowing victims of harassment the right to federal damage compensation. This 2013 documentary tells the story in Anita’s words, using footage from the trial and interviews to retell history in the words of those who experienced it.
8. Cameraperson (dir. Kirsten Johnson)
Kirsten Johnson is a documentary cinematographer who has spent 25 years of her life travelling the world and relaying the experiences of the people she met. Acclaimed for her role as director of photography on Academy award-winning film Citizenfour, the New York based filmmaker’s life has been Oscar worthy in itself. This brand new documentary of her life and work reveals footage from behind the scenes of her projects, which have taken her from genocide ravaged Darfur to the neonatal hospitals in Nigeria, from boxing championships in Brooklyn to women’s peace movements in Liberia. Though Johnson’s subject is ultimately her work as she beautifully contrasts her experiences in a series of juxtapositions, Cameraperson moves through a number of profound themes including the role of the camera in documenting reality and her own mother’s struggle with Alzheimers.
9. Girl Rising (dir. Richard E. Robbins)
The world was outraged in 2012 when schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai was shot by the taliban for demanding her right to an education. Her story brought to light the plight of millions of girls across the globe whose cultures deny them the right to go to school and learn alongside their brothers and male friends. From Peru to Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, Girl Rising tells the stories of nine girls facing this dilemna. An experiment in depicting reality from Academy Award nominated director Richard E. Robbins, the girls’ stories have been written by local authors and read out on film by actors. Though some of the girls will make it out of hardship, like Senna from Peru who through the help of organisation CARE is now attending university, many others will not be so lucky.
10. Presenting Princess Shaw (dir. Ido Haar)
Just a few years ago, aspiring singer Samantha Montgomery was working as a carer in a retirement home and posting videos of herself singing acappella on Youtube. Posting under the name Princess Shaw, her videos generally received under 100 views and functioned simply as respite from the pressures of her day job. Yet when an Israeli music producer stumbled across one of her videos, she was catapulted in to a realm of Youtube superstardom that she could never have imagined. A film on the positive and negatives of today’s social media celebrity, Princess Shaw emerges as an inspiring and engaging character. Revealing an abusive past and the hardships of poverty that saw her having her electricity shut off when she couldn’t afford to pay the bills, Montgomery’s unique spirit and resilience shines through in this 2016 doc.
Words by Megan O’Hara