Women On The Documentary Warpath

Had it occurred to anyone else, how well female documentary filmmakers are doing right now. Seriously? Everyone who is anybody is writing about the sad state of affairs of female feature film directors, but no one seems to be paying attention to how well the documentary makers are doing.

It All Began Last Year…

Let me start at the beginning. Last year a friend of mine took me to a special screening of a feature documentary called Dark Horse. The documentary is about a race horse (Dream Alliance) that was actually raised on an allotment a few doors down from my Nan, so I was eager to see it. Ahead of time I looked up the documentary on IMDb. I had this notion that it had been made by someone who probably wasn’t a very good filmmaker, someone who had jumped on this little story and tried to turn it into something it wasn’t. The clips made it look like a Hollywood movie for starters (I later discovered this was because of some particularly high quality scenic shots taken of Dream in his new home).

What I found was very far from the truth. The writer and director of Dark Horse is a documentarian called Louise Osmond. But more than that, Louise is actually one of my favourite filmmakers. Certainly my favourite documentarian, and I hadn’t even noticed. The maker of Deep Water, The Beckoning Silence and Richard III: The King in the Car Park, documentaries I had loved, and her name had never stuck? How had it never occurred to me to put all this together?

More than that, Louise was at the screening of Dark Horse that I attended. She was sweet and warm, and clearly held a place in her heart for all the people who had been part of the Dream Alliance syndicate. She talked about how she loved stories, and loved investigating them. Dark Horse had just won the Sundance Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary, and while she was happy about it she didn’t think it was the be all and end all. Looking back I wish I’d tried to talk to her after the event was over.

My astonishment at not knowing the name of someone whose films I clearly admired, was compounded last autumn when I discovered another documentarian, who I already loved, but hadn’t realised. Orion is a music documentary by Jeanie Finlay, a filmmaker who had also made another documentary I loved, The Great Hip-Hop Hoax. I went on to watch Jeanie’s Sound It Out and Goth Cruise, and while The Great Hip-Hop Hoax holds a special place in my heart there is no doubting what a great filmmaker Jeanie is.

 

Then Came The BIFA’S

My belief in these women (I’m currently writing features about them both for Film Inquiry) was affirmed with this year’s BIFA’s (British Independent Film Awards). Five men were nominated for Best Directing, Alex Garland won, and no one batted an eyelid. Although I imagine, as always, someone had something to say about the fact that there were no women in the category. As though we can just crowbar them in? Regardless of talent or whether they even made a film that year (people like to shout about the lack of female directors a lot, but they don’t have any good ideas about what to do about it, let alone just becoming one themselves).

But you know what? At the BIFA’s this year, two female directors did win awards. Dark Horse won Best Documentary while Orion won the Discovery award, albeit the awards were given to the films and not Louise or Jeanie directly. But they are both credited as the writers and directors of their respective films. So I call that a win!

I began to mull on how it was that two female documentarians were doing so well outside of the mainstream fictional film field, and no one seemed to be noticing. Then the other day I say down to watch Making A Murderer on Netflix and the cogs started to turn. There are brilliant female documentarians everywhere! And no one mentions it? Why? Is it because as long as they’re trucking along and doing well we don’t have anything to complain about? Is it because the documentary field is so overlooked we haven’t even noticed? Or is it because when we watch sharp or hard hitting documentaries we just assume a man must have made them?

Wait a second, isn’t Serial a documentary too? Isn’t Serial also made by a woman?

 

The Podcast As Documentary

We don’t really think to consider them but podcasts are an obvious kind of documentary, and I listen to a lot of them. I currently have 13 on my iTunes downloads. 8 could be classified as being documentary in form. For full disclosure, here’s the list of that 8:

Criminal (Hosted by Phoebe Judge, produced by Judge & Lauren Spohrer)
Dan Snow’s History Hit (Hosted by Dan Snow & produced by Dan Morelle)
Invisibilia (Hosted & produced by Alix Spiegel & Lulu Miller)
Serial (Hosted & produced by Sarah Koenig)
The Allusionist (Hosted & produced by Helen Zaltzman)
This American Life (Narrated & exec produced by Ira Glass)
Undisclosed: The State Vs. Adnan Syed (Hosted & produced by Rabia Chaudry, Colin Miller & Susan Simpson)
You Must Remember This (Hosted & produced by Karina Longworth)

Are you seeing a theme here? I know what you’re thinking. And I would think it to. Julia! You’re a woman! Surely you would prefer listening to other women? Well, you see, that doesn’t really add up. Because some of these are incredibly successful podcasts. Even if we discount Serial, and we can’t really do that, can we? But I see what you mean. One person’s taste in podcasts doesn’t mean that women are gaining an equal, even upper hand in documentary. That’s an unfair bias surely? Of course it is.

Then lets look at my favourite TV documentaries? A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley? Well, the makers of that are a mix of men and women, with men in the majority. As far as I can tell it was written by Lucy, this goes for her other documentaries too. My other favourite TV documentaries? Well it’s more of the same as far as I can tell. Michael Mosley presents his own documentaries, while producing others. But the producing and directing roles on his shows are mainly taken up by men, rather disappointingly.

So, maybe I’m biased towards documentaries made by women? Maybe not? Why don’t we go back to where I started, women as feature documentary makers. Let’s take a look at, for example the last 30 years of the Oscars, the Best Documentary category.

 

The Oscars

In the last 30 years a combination of 59 men and women have won the Best Documentary Oscar. (As far as I can tell the awards go the director/producers.) Out of this 59, 43 have been men and 16 have been women. I know, I know. It’s hardly a landslide. But if you consider these numbers against those for women winning Best Director it sort of is (especially if you consider the nominations too). Furthermore, if you look a bit closer, factor in that those 59 people were spread out over a 30 year period, and look at who actually picked up the award that year (with more than one person regularly in receivership), you’ll see that in 30 years, women took to the stage for 14 of them to receive an Oscar! Don’t tell me that’s not important.

(If you want to check on my workings out (and see the nominations) you can see the bare statistics here on the Best Documentary Wikipedia page.)

What happens if I do the same thing for Best Documentary Short Subject? In that case we have a combination of 44 men and women. With 21 men and 23 women picking up an Oscar! What is more, in 30 years, women picked up the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject 19 times!

(Here, again, are the statistics if you want to double check.)

Did I miss a memo? I mean, yeah, it sucks that there aren’t more female fiction feature filmmakers. But all this is going on and no one talks about it? Like I said before, is it because we’re almost level pegging with the men, so no one feels the need to fight about it? Or is it that no one has checked this before? The mind boggles.

 

Back To The Beginning

So, what I was actually doing before I began researching this blog, is that I was sitting, watching Making A Murderer on Netflix and I thought, jeez! Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi must have spent years of back breaking work on this. And I’m totally happy for us to ignore the fact that they’re women and just get on with enjoying the show. But here’s the thing, we argue every day to be treated the same, and we’re constantly pointing fingers at where women aren’t doing as well as men, and where they aren’t being treated equally.

The most talked about show at the moment is a documentary series made by two women! The world’s most successful podcast is hosted and produced by a woman. Women are winning awards for documentary making. We’re not just drawing equal to the men on this front, we’re outshining them in some cases. Can’t we all just think about that for a second and breathe a sigh of relief. While we’re far behind on other things, legions of Oscar winning documentarians, Louise Osmond, Jeanie Finlay, Sarah Koenig, Phoebe Judge, Helen Zaltzman, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi are blazing a trail so long, and surreptiously, no one’s even noticed that we are on fire.

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