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Documentary films by & about women at NZ International Film Festival

Still from The Red House
Last night's 7 earthquake was unsettling. And misogyny is in the air. Aaron Sorkin's woman problem for instance. And the distressing online abuse of women in the gaming world. I've been following the current battles there because gaming's an ever-growing and powerful segment of the storytelling world. As well, it's an excellent source of information about the likely beliefs which underlie the misogyny that exists in all other story-telling systems, where it tends to be expressed more subtly and less publicly. Today I felt very tired by it all. And for a moment there I forgot about the good things.

It's terrific that gaming's gender battles are generating some very positive responses, lots of them from men. This week, Maki's great comic and article about fighting misogyny, J Smooth's new video (below) and the guys covered in Katie J. M. Baker's article about fighting back. And among other mixed news for women in film, it's very sad that Nora Ephron has died. But Lena Dunham's superb New Yorker piece about her friendship with Nora  – reluctant to be called a woman director – shows how beautiful it can be when a powerful older woman filmmaker supports a younger one. It's so good to read about their relationship's simplicity and its complexity, in elegant language that is far far away from the sociological-management-speak of 'mentorship' and 'role model' and to glimpse a special kind of life-and-work-enhancing intimacy.

But the good things just didn't do it for me today. By lunchtime I felt so cranky that I shot down the hill for a Trisha's steak-and-mushroom pie, something I do about twice a year. And I picked up a hard copy of the New Zealand Film Festival (NZFF) programme. And got crankier. And then didn't enjoy the pie.

So what's the problem with the programme? Yes, a gorgeous cover image, an imaginary street filled with cinemas I know and love. But alas the character in the centre of the street is a bloke. At the edge of the street, in the background (where else?) are young women, one looking back at him. There's also a back view of someone dreadlocked, being eyed by the central figure, but let's not go there.

And then inside, an introduction that starts "Here stands NZIFF...boldly posing as an enduring beacon of cultural inspiration..." Well, posing, yes. Enduring, yes. But a 'beacon of cultural inspiration' goes too far. Because the documentary section of the NZFF brilliantly illuminates how little we value women's stories. As I understand it, the responsibility for this is not just NZFF's. It's collective, shared by filmmakers, by those who invest in filmmaking, by festival selectors and by audiences. To paraphrase the Jane Campion statement I referred to yesterday "Why don't we want to know what women think and feel?" Is it partly because we're all conditioned to expect and prefer work by and about men? If the NZFF wants to call itself a beacon of cultural inspiration, I think it's time for it to step up and develop its contribution to resolving the gender problem in film, like the men engaged with gaming misogyny.

Here are the NZFF's miserable documentary stats. Fifteen out of seventy docos are about women's lives, 21%. (Not all of the selected films document individual lives of course, but almost all are about humans). Women directed or co-directed nineteen of the sixty-nine films that have named directors, 27%, and eleven of these nineteen feature women, individually, in a couple, or within a group, 57%. Of the fifty documentaries that men directed, however, only four feature women: 8%.

That said, there are some truly exciting choices for those of us who want to use the NZFF programme to cobble together a personal women's film festival. Here's the very easy to navigate NZFF site.

Still from The Red House
1. First up, New Zealander Alyx Duncan's The Red House. Called a 'creative documentary' at the Berlinale's Talent Campus (Doc Station), it is the story of
...a Pakeha (NZ European) man Lee, married to a Chinese woman Jia - they share a great love, yet have different perspectives and pasts. Lee is a disillusioned conservationist, struggling to protect his world from rampant development. Jia grew up in Communist China and came to New Zealand to give her son a better life. In a time of rapidly changing cultures and environmental upheaval, this couple strives to be true to their values and love.
According to Alyx's site, 'The Red House offers a personal perspective in the context of globalization. The film asks: What’s worth preserving in times of change? How do we keep our hopes and love alive?' The pace and the images in the trailer, on Alyx's site only, remind me of another 'creative documentary', Steve McQueen's Hunger; and of Vincent Ward's work. Or maybe a 'hybrid' doc, like Gaylene Preston's Home by Christmas. I'm delighted whenever a New Zealand woman makes this kind of feature. I've enjoyed the images and choreography in Alyx's short films, am interested in how she'll manage a longer structure; I'm expecting something challenging and very beautiful.

interview with Alyx 
Berlinale Talent Campus (Doc Station) filmmaker profile
Berlinale Talent Campus project profile

2. I've been waiting for Carol Morley's Dreams of a Life! And have already played the associated interactive game Dreams of Your Life, written by novelist A L Kennedy!

'Nobody noticed when Joyce Vincent died in her bedsit above a shopping mall in north London, in 2003. Her body wasn’t discovered for three years, surrounded by Christmas presents she had been wrapping, and with the TV still on. Newspaper reports offered few details of her life - not even a photograph. Who was she? And how could this happen to someone in our day and age- the so-called age of communication?' Carol Morley set out to find out. And Dreams of a Life is the result. Everyone I know who's seen it has been deeply moved.

Twitter Dreams of a Life
Twitter Carol Morley
British Film Institute video interview with Carol
Carol writes about the film in the Guardian
Awesome Diva interview, with filmmaker CampbellX

3. Pink Ribbons, Inc, directed by Léa Pool, is based on Samantha King's book and is 'a trenchant critique of breast cancer 'culture''. One of my heroes, Barbara Ehrenreich, is in it.

No other social media I can find.

Here's an interview with Léa Pool, and the trailer.

4. Marina Goldovskaya's A Bitter Taste of Freedom is another political doco, about the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in Moscow in 2006. Marina Goldovskaya is a legendary documentary maker and her autobiography Woman With a Movie Camera: My Life as a Russian Filmmaker inspired me when I read it. Yesterday, I read about the strength of Russian women's filmmaking today and want to learn more. Maybe we can learn something from them! Anyway, I learned heaps from Woman With a Movie Camera, and will be there to see A Bitter Taste of Freedom.

Marina Goldovskaya

Here's Marina Goldovskaya talking about the film, and a trailer.

5. First Position's director, Bess Kargman, was once a dancer herself. First position follows young ballet dancers from all over the world as they compete for elite dance scholarships. For all of us girl dancers! First Position's won a ton of awards, including first runner up for best documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.


Here's an interview with Bess at the Vancouver International Women's Film Festival, and the trailer.

6. Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir and Orri Jónsson wrote and directed Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir about a legendary Icelandic musician. Includes animations, is shot on Super-8 and looks like a lot of fun! Sold!

Website (beautiful)

7. Bernadette Devlin was a 'fearless, fiercely articulate Irish Republican' when she became a British MP aged 21 in 1969. She's remarkable and has led an extraordinary life, and I can't wait to see Leila Doolan's Bernadette: Notes on A Political Journey.

I can't find a trailer, or websbite or Facebook page, but here's the link to a British Film Institute interview and a Q & A, with Leila Doolan:

Video interview Leila Doolan (BFI)

8. Lisa Immordino Vreeland's Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel appeals to the part of me that loves Vogue etc! Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) is 'mostly remembered as a commanding New York high-fashion figure, rip-roaring editor at Harper’s Bazaar, then Vogue, and the one who made the first exhibitions of haute couture happen' at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's part of what seems to be a massive family enterprise, with a website, a Facebook page, Twitter account and a book, but YouTube's removed the trailer! It may be somewhere on the website but so far I haven't found it. Lisa Immordino Vreeland is Vreeland's grand-daughter-in-law.

Film page on website (a bit hard to navigate)

9. And now for two films about very different lifestyles from Vreeland's. Julia Ivanova directed Family Portrait in Black and White, about Olga Nenya and her family of twenty-three foster children.


Trailer here:

10. Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith's How Far is Heaven is about nuns on New Zealand's Wanganui River. It looks *gorgeous*. Unmissable.

Website (the most beautiful of all listed so far?)

11. The last film in this series is a celebration I want to experience: Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle,  by Lian Lunson. Kate and Anna McGarrigle's music is stunning and I was very sad when Kate died a couple of years ago. But here's a 'heart-achingly gorgeous' tribute concert with Kate's children Rufus and Martha Wainwright, with Anna McGarrigle and another sister Jane-a composer who occasionally sang with Kate and Anna- and various others including Michael Ondaatje. O wow.

No website I can find.

Lian Lunson on the film:

Isn't that a fine and varied collection? Tomorrow, women-directed docos about men, and men's docos about women. And do take a look at J Smooth's new video, and his other ones. He's awesome!

More on women-directed features at NZFF, & some shorts, & Cannes (narrative features, 1)
More on women-directed features at NZFF (narrative features, 2)


  1. Seizing just on one small part of this wonderful piece: I feel about the work of Lena Dunham & Nora Ephron the same way the writer of the piece on Sorkin feels about Sorkin's work. Which is to say: there's a gap between what these 2 women directors are (or were) said to be doing for women in media and what I'm actually seeing. Try as I might to like "Girls," I...just can't. And as far as Nora Ephron being such a groundbreaker for women in Hollywood? Her work was funny and entertaining but it didn't do much of anything to counter gender stereotypes. That said, your blog and the Her Film blog help keep me from putting my head in the oven. :)

  2. Hmmm. I haven't seen Girls, don't think it's here yet. But Tiny Furniture intrigued me. What don't you like? That whole gap issue also intrigues me, partly because I always find so many gaps between what I intend when I write (or film) and what I end up with. Some are good, some are itchy problems that sometimes I can't resolve. And there are more gaps, some that please me, when people 'read' the work. And I *like* 'funny and entertaining' and Nora Ephron's success (and Lena Dunham's) makes me optimistic. But I think you're maybe talking about one of those Empresses Clothes-type gaps that are created by people who write and talk about the work, maybe because they're so hope-hungry ? Or several of those gaps? Hope you write more about this, here or somewhere else--

  3. And PS, very happy to encourage you to refrain from the oven gig, and know Kyna will feel the same. We need you here! xx


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