Actress Helen Mirren won a lifetime achievement award at the UK Women in Film and Television Awards the other day, and she used it as an opportunity to speak out on the changes in Hollywood and where film should go from here. Mirren said that in the beginning: "It was all men. If you were lucky, there was one woman... That was it; everybody else on the set (was a man) and my God, it's changed and that's fantastic." But she's not satisfied with status quo: "It has not gone nearly far enough... I want to see more women behind the camera. We have great women working in this industry. Let's celebrate them with this award."
Of course, we've already talked about the strong directorial race for the Oscars this year, but that's just one part of a business where female directors accounted for only 9% of the top 250 films of 2008. So how should Hollywood expand as we move into the next decade? While we should continue to foster new talent, it would be really easy to make use of established talent in the movie industry and look towards documentaries. While women struggle in fiction, they thrive in truth.
This is nothing new. Year after year, writers have noted that the documentary film business is overflowing with female directors. In 2004, Amy Taubin wrote a piece for Ms. Magazine outlining the long history of female documentary filmmakers who have continually shown more success than women in the fictional Hollywood world... How 1955 marked the first Oscar-winning documentary directed by a woman (Nancy Hamilton for Helen Keller In Her Story), while zooming forward almost 50 years, Ondi Timoner's DIG! won the documentary award at Sundance 2004, a competition where 10 out of the 16 films were directed by women. Last year, Melissa Silverstein wrote a piece for The Women's Media Center and noted that "anecdotally most experts in the documentary community believe that women directors make up at least 50 percent of the directing ranks."
Sure, the latter is far from an exact number, but if you're even moderately well-versed in the world of documentary filmmaking, think of the number of female directors that come to mind over the last 5-10 years, aside from the previously mentioned Ondi Timoner: Jessica Yu, Zana Briski, Amy Berg, Jennifer Venditti, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Barbara Kopple, Mandy Stein, Deborah Oppenheimer... It's not unusual to see rosters full of women when it comes to documentary filmmaking. As Silverstein noted: "Another reason [for the success] is not so upbeat: documentaries have lower budgets, smaller staffs and, in turn, less prestige." Docs are the "safe" bet for female filmmakers. There is less to prove and more opportunity. There's no huge worry that the lesser-known female documentary filmmaker will lose millions of dollars.
The thing is: They have proven themselves. That same Taubin piece notes how after Hamilton won an Oscar, she was followed by Sarah Kernochan, Barbara Kopple, Freida Lee Mock, Victoria Mudd, and Maria Florio. (Compared to the Best Director Oscar, an award that has only seen three female filmmakers in its entire history.) That's not to mention those who have won Oscars for Best Documentary Short.
Like, say, Jessica Yu. Personally, she's my top choice for a nice break into the feature filmmaking world. She has made shorts about sucking on Sour Death Balls, maestro flavor with The Conductor, poet Mark O'Brien (which won her the Oscar), the creations of mentally ill artists, a man gearing up to propose, the art of Henry Darger, a mixture of Euripides and violence with Protagonist, ping pong comedy, and how young people understand childbirth. That's topped with television work on The Guardian, ER, American Dreams, Mister Sterling, The Lyon's Den, The West Wing, and Grey's Anatomy. While most are at home in the art world, she's proven a range that could very well bring a sense of artistry to the regular feature world, or more mirth along the lines of Ping Pong Playa.
The other perk about the female documentarians, which would make them such a welcome addition to narrative filmmaking: They have diverse interests. Oh, to see a list of women-directed films that show a delightful range. We need less Ephron and more Taymor and Bigelow. As someone who is quite picky about interpersonal fare, I yearn to see less softness and more spice. That's what's so great about Bigelow or, say, Yu's Protagonist -- neither has the stigma of "chick flick fare" and both show a decided lack in what we call feminine. Taymor may have been all romantic with Across the Universe, but she's also responsible for bringing Shakespeare's one campy horror to the big screen with Titus.
The fact of the matter is: There are successful filmmakers out there. Narrative Hollywood just has to give them a chance.
Which female documentary filmmakers would you like to see helming mainstream, big-screen features?