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Women and the Documentary Feature Academy Award short list (& the rest!)

Five docos that women directed or co-directed are among the fifteen films short-listed for the Documentary Feature category of the 2012 Academy Awards. Warm congratulations to all these women!

Nancy Buirski directed The Loving Story. Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, lived in Virginia in the 1960s, where there was a law against interracial marriage. The Loving Story is about their landmark Supreme Court Case, Loving v. Virginia, which changed history. There's no trailer yet, but The Loving Story website is beautiful and here's an interview with Nancy:

Cindy Meehl's (Buck) and Susanne Rostock's (Sing Your Song) films are both about men.

Buck is about Buck Brannaman, "a true American cowboy and sage on horseback who travels the country for nine gruelling months a year helping horses with people problems". As he says in one clip I found, it's about horsemanship as an art form. Here's the trailer:

Sing Your Song is about Harry Belafonte. It too has a great website, which includes a journal from Harry Belafonte himself. In the latest (video) entry he talks about Occupy Wall Street.

The other two women directors co-directed with men.

Suki Hawley co-directed Battle for Brooklyn with Michael Galinsky. According to its website, Battle for Brooklyn explores the poorly understood phenomenon of eminent domain abuse. It investigates how real estate developers, local government, community activists, and the media have clashed over the largest single-source development project ever proposed in New York City, the Atlantic Yards project.

Rachel Libert co-directed Semper Fi: Always Faithful with Tony Hardmon. It follows drill instructor Jerry Ensminger's mission to expose the Marine Corps and force them to live up to their motto when thousands of soldiers and their families are exposed to toxic chemicals. His fight reveals a grave injustice at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune and a looming environmental crisis at military sites across the country.

Also on the short-list, Lorenz Knauer's Jane's Journey about Jane Goodall.

And Wim Wender's Pina, which pays tribute to the legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch. Pina has also been entered in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

I'm disappointed that women directors' acknowledged strength in documentary isn't reflected in this list, with just a fifth of the films short-listed directed only by women, or a third if the co-directed films are included. And I'm interested to see that The Loving Story is the only woman-directed film on the list that is about a woman. Are documentaries a little like fictional features, where—in general—if women's projects centre on men, their films are more likely to be taken seriously, by investors and in competitions? Are stories about women's lives taken seriously only if men tell the stories?

This week, when the new Bertha BRITDOC Documentary Journalism Fund was announced, I asked these questions again. Here's the fund's self-description. It is: international film fund dedicated to supporting long form feature documentaries of a journalistic nature...looking for films that break the important stories of our time, expose injustice, bring attention to unreported issues and cameras into regions previously unseen.
On its website's front page, the fund gives six examples of the kinds of films it might have funded, as a guide. Not one of them is about women. One of them, Julie Bacha's Budrus, has a woman director, and it is about a man. Like the Documentary Feature short-list, this gives the message that docos by and about women are not as important as those by and about men. As money for documentaries becomes tighter, will funded documentaries by and about women become more rare? Will women storytellers be shut out, as they are from fictional feature storytelling?

Also this week there's been considerable discussion about the annual Hollywood Reporter Roundtable discussions with directors and writers, because no women have been included, by the wonderful Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood, and by Sophia Savage, also at Indiewire, where there are some interesting comments. As a writer, I'm frustrated that there's no corresponding roundtable that honours women writers (many of them also directors) of new and significant films, where they talk with one another and to us. It doesn't need to be in Hollywood, which hasn't served women well. I just want to hear what gifted women writers have to say when they're together; I can often find them as individuals on YouTube. 

There's Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights, with Olivia Hetreed); Madonna (W./E.—and if you don't think about Madonna as a writer, please check out her Venice Film Fest YouTube interviews which make it clear that she is); Dee Rees (Pariah), Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids); Julia Leigh (Sleeping Beauty, also a distinguished novelist, who would have plenty to say). Then there's the very independent Kelly Reichardt with Meek's Cut-Off and Nancy Savoca & Mary Tobler with Union Square. Lynne Ramsay who wrote We Need To Talk About Kevin with Rory Kinnear.  Ava Du Vernay who wrote I Will Follow and followed it up fast with Middle of Nowhere now in post-production AND is the visionary behind AFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, introduced in this article. Abi Morgan wrote The Iron Lady. Miranda July, The Future. How can these women be brought together? And the many more women writing films in other languages as well as English? 

When men are foregrounded in Documentary Feature short-list, in the list of men's films on the Bertha Britdoc site, and at those Hollywood roundtables, it feels as though nothing's changed and nothing will ever change. According to webseries maker Anne Flournoy, commenting at Women & Hollywood, it's no better for women who write webseries, although it's seemed that women storytellers were leading the way in that medium, and probably they still are, but are under-appreciated:

Sorry to report in from the world of web series that it doesn't look much better over here. NYTV Festival recently had a whole day of panels with not one woman on any of them. (Don't get me started on the difficulty of a woman's web series getting into this festival if it doesn't show women in a T&A type situation...with rare exceptions.)

Is it time for those of us who care about this situation to get together to problem-solve, to support one another and to assert ourselves, more effectively than ever before? Are you in?

More on The Bertha Foundation

When I read the mission statement of The Bertha Foundation, and looked at its projects, as a storyteller, a lawyer and a social entrepreneur I was excited. Here it is:
The Bertha Foundation believes that in order to affect positive change in the world, you need activist lawyers, storytellers and social entrepreneurs. 
Lawyers: We aim to inspire and enable the work of socially minded lawyers and are committed to strengthening the field of public interest law. 
Social Entrepreneurs: When people have the right tools and opportunities, they are best placed to solve their own problems. We support those using business principles and innovation to create sustainable large-scale change. 
Storytellers: We believe in the power of visual storytelling to educate, inform and inspire action, and are dedicated to supporting the creation and distribution of social impact media projects. Documentaries are central to this vision.
As well as the Bertha BRITDOC Fund for Journalism, there's the Bertha BRITDOC Connect Fund. It is open to filmmakers around the world  and supports "smart, strategic outreach campaigns for ambitious independent documentary films with a social issue at their core; films which have the ability to achieve real change on a local, regional or global level."


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