One of the many fields in which women excel is film: There have been hundreds of incredible female filmmakers who have directed brilliant movies over the years, including Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968) – who is generally regarded as the first female director – art house legends Clare Denis and Agnès Varda, and Oscar-winning directors Kathryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, here we select 10 female-directed documentaries that we recommend watching today (or any day).
The House is Black (Forugh Farrokhzad, 1963)
This black-and-white documentary from feminist Iranian author and poet Forugh Farrokhzad is viewed today as one of the landmark early Iranian films. The visual essay focuses on an isolated community of people suffering from leprosy in northwest Iran.
The uncomfortable scenes of the inhabitants are stitched together with voiceovers from Farrokhzad, who reads her own poetry as well as lines from the Old Testament and the Koran. Farrokhzad died aged 32 in a car crash making this 22-minute short, her only film, all the more poignant.
Grey Gardens (Muffie Meyer, 1975)
Grey Gardens is one of the most famous documentaries of all time: not only has it been turned into a 2006 musical and a 2009 film, but over the years it has become a reference point for fashion designers, filmmakers, comedians and artists. The Guardian said that “Grey Gardens changed the documentary genre”.
The documentary focuses on an eccentric mother and daughter from extremely privileged backgrounds (they are the aunt and the first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) who have been living a reclusive life in a decaying mansion in East Hampton for decades.
Muffie Meyer was one of the four directors of the film, working alongside David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Ellen Hovde. The film was deemed so culturally important that in 2010 the Library of Congress selected it for preservation.
Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)
Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning was another cultural landmark and has also been selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. The documentary, which was filmed in the mid to late Eighties, focuses on the lives of members of New York City’s ballroom scene – most of whom are from poor black and Latinx backgrounds – as they take part in runway competitions and navigate their lives outside of the shows.
Through interviews, which were taken over a six-year period, Livingston pieces together a picture of how the young competitors deal with issues such as AIDS, racism, homophobia, and poverty. The documentary also explores how the ballroom ‘houses’ become surrogate families for many of the dancers who had been thrown out because of their sexuality and lifestyle.
Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story (Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan, 1997)
In 1977, 13-year-old Japanese student Megumi Yokota was kidnapped by a North Korean agent as she was walking home from school. It was not a unique case: at least 17 Japanese citizens were kidnapped by North Korea around this time. Today Megumi’s fate remains unclear, with some reports saying that she died in captivity, and some saying that she was still alive and was teaching North Korean spies Japanese.
This moving documentary looks at the case through the eyes of Megumi’s parents and follows their 20-year campaign to find out what really happened to their daughter. The documentary, which was executive-produced by Jane Campion, was nominated for more than a dozen awards and won Best Documentary at the 2006 Austin Film Festival.
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2013)
This extraordinary film from Canadian Sarah Polley is her own investigation of her own family’s secrets. Through interviews with various members of her family, home movies and Super-8 re-creations of home movies, she weaves together a fascinating picture. The Guardian called it a “complex love letter to her parents” and said it was “a gripping and absorbing meditation on the unknowability of other lives”.
In 2015, Stories We Tell was named one of Toronto International Film Festival’s top 10 Canadian films of all time and was listed in the BBC’s greatest film since 2000 list that it released in 2016.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (Lisa Immordino Vreeland, 2015)
Peggy Guggenheim was an extraordinary character and lived an extraordinary life. Born into the wealthy New York City Guggenheim family, she was a bohemian, a socialite and an influential art collector, who led an electrifying, globe-trotting life: as well as building one of the world’s leading art collections, she was married to Max Ernst, and had affairs with hundreds of artists and writers including Samuel Beckett, Yves Tanguy, Roland Penrose and E. L. T. Mesens.
It makes sense then that a documentary about her life would make for a fascinating watch – and not just for art lovers either. Through the use of interviews, photographs and archival footage, filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland (who married Alexander, the grandson of Diana and Thomas Reed Vreeland) does a fantastic job of painting a picture of the beguiling woman.
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)
Kirsten Johnson has had a successful career working as a director and cinematographer, with over 40 film credits to her name including the 2016 Laura Poitras-directed documentary Citizenfour.
In 2016 she released Cameraperson, an award-winning film about her life and her profession made up of tens of small videos taken throughout her career. It makes sense that given her extraordinary life, which has seen her travel widely – including to Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Yemen – the film is a glorious, if complicated, piece of cinema.
Although the Camerperson is about the creative process of making a documentary film, it also gently provokes some of the big questions about human life. The Guardian gave it five stars saying, “Cameraperson is an absorbing, challenging creation.”
For Sama (Waad al-Kateab, 2019)
Waad al-Kateab was an 18-year-old economics student at the University of Aleppo when the 2011 protests against the Assad regime began. She picked up her camera and didn’t stop filming for the next five years as Assad bombed Syria, and as she fell in love with a doctor and had a baby.
It’s an understatement to say that For Sama is difficult watch: there are harrowing sequences of bodies of men, women and children frequently shown on screen – brothers screaming over their dead siblings, mothers holding dead children. But the violence is interspersed with scenes of love, hope and unfathomable bravery, which leaves the viewer overwhelmed and inspired.
Others agreed: The Times gave it five stars saying it was “unbearable, unmissable” and that, “there simply hasn’t been a film like it before”; The Guardian called it a “profoundly moving study of horror and hope”. The film received a standing ovation at Cannes where it later won Best Documentary and it won Best Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival.
Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2019)
Free Solo is about American climber Alex Honnold’s attempts to climb the 3,000ft El Capitan rock face in Yosemite National Park without any ropes. The near-impossible nature of the task makes the documentary, from American filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (and her husband Jimmy Chin) a sort of immense thriller that is both impossible to watch and stop watching.
The Seattle Times said the film was: “a masterpiece nearly as impressive in execution as the climb himself,” which is probably not true, but communicates the extraordinary pace and tone of the film which won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars in 2018.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras, 2023)
Laura Poitras has spent her career investigating some of the world’s most urgent issues. She made the 2006 documentary My Country, My Country about Iraq under U.S. occupation, the Oscar-winning Citizenfour (2014) about the Edward Snowden NSA spying scandal, and Risk (2016), about the life of Julian Assange.
This year she released All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a documentary about photographer Nan Goldin’s campaign against the Sackler family, the pharmaceutical giant who made many of the opioids now at the centre of America’s opioid crisis.
“What makes the film truly special is the way Poitras weaves Goldin’s story into the mix,” said The Standard, “moving from her own three-year addiction to OxyContin, to pieceing together details about the tragedies surrounding Barbara Goldin, her big sister, as well as her two best friends… She wears her fury that they’re gone on her sleeve.”
The “documentary will leave you emotionally wrecked”, said The Standard.