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Women Directors Reap Rewards in Documentary World

Women directors and producers are consistent winners and well-represented as nominees when it comes to documentaries in awards season. Barbara Kopple is a two-time Oscar-winning documentary director; Freida Lee Mock is an Oscar winner and was the Academy’s first documentary branch governor; Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”) and Zana Briski (“Born Into Brothels”) are the two women who’ve taken home the gold statuette as directors most recently. It’s a field in which women have made their mark in cinematography and editing, too, and are not outliers.

“Women have always been fiercely part of the documentary filmmaking movement,” says Diane Weyermann, Participant Media’s president of documentary film and TV. The barriers to entry are not as high when compared to scripted/narrative features, especially when it comes to financing. Production costs are less and crews are traditionally a fraction of the size. There’s also the longstanding tradition of community in the documentary world and a notable generosity of spirit where seasoned pros are willing to help and support fellow filmmakers and emerging talent.

“Women who want to make documentaries have many doors to knock on,” says director Susan Lacy (HBO’s “Jane Fonda in Five Acts”). And women are often the ones who open those doors. Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller oversee HBO’s documentary division (following the groundbreaking tenure of Sheila Nevins), and HBO is where Lacy inked a multi-year deal at HBO after exiting PBS’ multi-Emmy winning non-fiction series “American Masters.”

“There’s also a lot of public funding opportunities that don’t exist for narrative films and also much less of a bias,” adds the director-producer of “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” a candid and timely portrait of the star and activist whose career and persona have shape-shifted with the decades. (Lacy recommends watching Tom Donahue’s documentary “This Changes Everything” as a primer on gender bias in Hollywood.)

First-time feature documentary director Cristina Costantini wanted to celebrate the world of high school science fair competitions, a topic she knew intimately as a teenage science fair competitor. Her crew was small for “Science Fair” — three people, including co-director Darren Foster. Univision backed the project, which earned the Sundance Film Festival’s inaugural festival favorite award. National Geographic Documentary Films is releasing the feature theatrically and promoting an educational outreach.

A lifelong movie fan, Costantini reached out to the women creators of her favorite film, 2004’s “Mad Hot Ballroom,” for advice. “Director Marilyn Agrelo and producer Amy Sewell were incredible resources for me,” she says. They advised her to follow subjects “who made me laugh and made me cry.” “Science Fair’s” diverse ensemble does just that, earning a 98% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Having female filmmakers as models in the field, showed me it could be done.”

It was Tribeca Prods.’ Jane Rosenthal who pushed rookie director Rashida Jones to commit to making a documentary about her father, music industry heavyweight Quincy Jones. “Although I did not go to film school, I’ve been in the business 20-plus years, but had a fear around directing,” recalled Jones prior to the “Quincy’s” TIFF premiere.

When making the film, with collaborator and co-director Alan Hicks, the two built on their different strengths. “We tried to keep it emotional and not totally forced,” she says of the decision to utilize verite and archival footage rather than rely on talking head-style present-day interviews.

“Free Solo’s” E. Chai Vasarhelyi describes herself and Jimmy Chinn as directing partners, rather than co-directors. The pair met on their previous film, “Meru” (which grabbed DGA and PGA nominations). “Free Solo” is Vasarhelyi’s sixth feature-length film and captures acclaimed solo climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to scale Yosemite’s El Capitan granite rock face without ropes or other safety gear.

“ ‘Free Solo’ is a perfect marriage of our skills: Jimmy directed the high-altitude shots and was sensitive to climber Alex Honnold’s headspace,” she explains. Her role was to determine how to best tell the story. The duo (who are now married) edited concurrently with filming the preparations for the historic and daring climb. “The editing helped me focus their shooting,” Vasarhelyi says, and the footage dramatically expresses the vertiginous nature of the ascent.

Although an action film, she believes the pic works on an emotional level too. Her first film (made at age 22) was sponsored by grants; she won the documentary prize at the Tribeca Film Festival at age 23 for “A Normal Life.”

“I think you have to believe in what you are doing when making a documentary,” she says. There’s more independence in the documentary realm, a factor that may attract women, and fewer barriers to entry, she adds.

Tenacity, however, is a necessity. “In the documentary film business, you have more power to tell your own story,” says Sandi Tan, director of “Shirkers,” a found-footage film from her own long-lost feature shot 25 years ago in Singapore. The story of “Shirkers” began when Tan was 18 and decided with the help of friends and a mentor to write and then shoot an independent road movie/thriller. Her mentor mysteriously turned on the team and ultimately stole the processed footage.

Tan, who has made short films, written screenplays and is a novelist, realized the story of the unfinished film could become a documentary when the footage came back to her in 2015.

“I thought it was really interesting but kept it a secret: my secret superhero identity was my 18-year-old self. I never told anyone about this, it was such a hidden thing,” she says. When she saw the original 16mm footage being transferred she realized that there was something more. It was exactly as she remembered it.

“I can’t tell you the number of people that feel that it’s their story. And feel me telling them to be brave, to rediscover your passion for whatever it was you had in your youth,” Tan says. “Shirkers” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where Tan won the World Cinema documentary directing award. Funding support came from the Sundance Documentary Film Program and Cinereach. Netflix launched the film in late October.

“Female filmmakers have told me they feel entirely moved and inspired by ‘Shirkers,’ ” she says. She’s found documentary to be “liberating and open to people of all kinds, especially women.”

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