Oscar Documentary Race Shaping Up to be Year of the Woman

When it comes to the film industry’s non-fiction arm, 2019 has proven to be the year of the woman. Not only are females behind the majority of this year’s high-profile documentaries, they are also, thus far, dominating the non-fiction feature awards race. Case in point, six of the 10 best doc noms selected from 375 submissions for the 35th annual Intl. Documentary Assn. awards were directed or co-directed by women.
They are: “Advocate” (Rachel Leah Jones), “American Factory” (Julia Reichert), “For Sama” (Waad Al-Khateab), “Honeyland” (Tamara Kotevska), “One Child Nation” (Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang) and “Edge of Democracy” (Petra Costa).

Additionally, all the films nominated in the kudofest’s inaugural director category were helmed or co-helmed by women, while three of this year’s five feature doc Gotham Award nominees are directed by females. Meanwhile the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards gave “American Factory,” “Honeyland” and “One Child Nation” a combined total of 13 noms. Reichert and her co-director Steven Bognar won the director prize for “American Factory” about a General Motors plant taken over by a Chinese billionaire with the promise of giving work to more than 2,000 Ohio residents, along with bringing hundreds of Chinese workers to the state.

“In the early days of shooting Steve and I, in our hearts, felt it was amazing but we weren’t talking about it,” Reichert says. “Then Julie Parker Benello found out about it and made sure we got it made.”

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Benello is the co-founder of Chicken & Egg, a nonprofit launched in 2005 that supports nonfiction films directed by women. In 2016 the organization awarded Reichert with a $50,000 unrestricted grant after viewing past and present work, which included “American Factory.”

“I was on the selection committee and I, personally, could not stop thinking about the footage,” says Benello, who went on to produce the doc while Chicken & Egg helped fund the film, which Netflix acquired at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Chicken & Egg also helped fund “One Child Nation,” about China’s policy of forcibly restricting family size. Amazon acquired the film at Sundance.

Wang and Zhang began filming in China at the end of 2016. They quickly realized that uncovering and exposing the country’s discontinued policy that incorporated state-enforced sterilizations and kidnappings was dangerous.

“One day after filming I got home and the [Chinese] government showed up at my door,” Wang says. “Someone had filmed me doing an interview, so these government men said, ‘We heard you are making a film about the One Child Policy. You need to delete all of your footage.’” Wang pretended to erase it.

Other female frontrunners in this year’s doc race include Lauren Greenfield (“The Kingmaker”), Rachel Lears (“Knock Down the House”), Jehane Noujaim (“The Great Hack”), Nancy Schwartzman (“Roll Red Roll”) and Emily Taguchi (“After Parkland.”)

For Showtime’s “The Kingmaker,” about former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos’ return to power, Greenfield did several interviews with key subjects before determining what direction the film would take. “What really hooked me was this idea of Imelda’s comeback and potential redemption,” Greenfield says. “I was just so surprised that somebody with her history who had gone into exile, had been kicked out of the country and the entire world saw as a dictator who had stolen $5 [billion] to $10 billion, could go back to the Philippines and get back into politics. So it became a film about power and also about money and politics.”

Greenfield’s doc is also about female power. Luckily in the documentary world women’s current dominance has nothing to do with corruption. “I think that women are reaching critical mass in the nonfiction industry for a variety of reasons,” Benello says. “It’s a field that women tend to self select into because it can be easier to greenlight your own projects and get your films off the ground. There are also more women gatekeepers in the doc world. So we are having a crescendo of interesting women’s voices and women storytelling and the #MeToo context is the backdrop for all of it. It’s a perfect storm of those things coming together to create this beautiful movement for women nonfiction storytellers.”

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