Female Directors Break Down Barriers in Documentary Awards Race

Stray Dog Review

It’s been well documented that Hollywood is no picnic for women. But when it comes to documentaries, females thrive.

When Laura Poitras won the Academy Award for “Citizenfour” last year, she joined a group of 10 female nonfiction directors who have also won an Oscar. In the past decade alone 12 female directors have been nominated in the category. Compare that to the feature-directing race where in the last 10 years the only femme nominee was Kathryn Bigelow (who went on to make history by being the first woman to win).

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that female representation in the doc world isn’t limited to the director’s chair. Whether they work as producers, editors, television distributers, fest programmers or funders, women make up a majority of the doc world’s gatekeepers.

So it wasn’t a surprise when the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State U. revealed last June that women made up 29% of directors working on documentaries. That is in stark contrast to the 7% of female directors for the 250 top-grossing narrative films of 2014.

An even more encouraging stat: a third of the 124 eligible docs were directed or co-directed by women, including critically acclaimed titles like Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken’s “Song of Lahore.”

Director Amy Berg had three docus premiere in the past 12 months — “An Open Secret,” “Prophet’s Prey” and “Janis: Little Girl Blue” (the latter two are Oscar eligible). She partially attributes the branch’s female domination to a strong nonfiction film community.

“We are all so supportive of each other,” Berg says. “We also have such a strong support group of philanthropists and independent financiers that don’t use gender as criteria (when financing).”

While studios demonstrate an inexplicable fear of hiring female helmers, the doc world doesn’t have the same barriers.

“To get a documentary started — I’m not saying to finish it — it doesn’t take a whole lot of capital,” says “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik, who ventured into doc filmmaking with this year’s “Stray Dog.” “You don’t need anyone to greenlight that idea. That’s the salient difference (between narratives and docs).”

Granik describes the making of her first doc as a “gender-free fiesta.”

“The gender thing gets removed for me when it comes to the documentary world,” she says. “There are completely very different standards (for making a documentary). You aren’t dealing with whether someone is beautiful or attractive enough or worthy enough or financeable enough (to play a part). With all of those impediments to moving forward taken away, it’s freeing.”

Granik adds that when it comes to accessing sensitive social arenas often explored in nonfiction films, females have a leg up.

“When you’re dealing with worlds that you need to enter there is a frequency with which, I think, women are seen as less intimidating,” helmer says. “In all arenas you wouldn’t want to be seen as someone’s third-grade teacher or social worker, but in some it’s a compliment.”

For newbie director Crystal Moselle, being a woman might have helped her when she “chased” the subjects of her doc, “The Wolfpack,” down First Avenue.

“These kids with long hair ran past me, weaving through the crowd. I counted one, two, three of them, then three more,” Moselle says. “My instinct took over, and I chased after them catching up at a stoplight. I asked where they were from and they said ‘Delancy Street.’ They mentioned how they were not supposed to talk to strangers, but wondered what I did for a living. When I told them that I was a filmmaker, they got really excited, exclaiming, ‘We are interested in getting into the business of filmmaking.’ We made a time to meet so I could show them some cameras.”

“Wolfpack” won the grand jury prize for documentary at Sundance this year, where three other femme-helmed docs nabbed prizes: Louise Osmond’s “Dark Horse,” Kim Longinotto’s “Dreamcatcher” and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Meru” (co-directed by Jimmy Chin).

First-time director Sara Bordo’s “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” has also racked up multiple fest prizes.

“Being led by women was not the intention,” Bordo says. “But in a world where so often women compete over collaborate, I’m proud to have had the team we did.”

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