I entered the world of documentaries and Hot Docs late in the game -- when I first dove into festival coverage for Cinematical back in ol' 2007 -- but oh, I fell quickly and hard. That first year, Hot Docs immediately became the prime movie hurrah, trumping my long love of the Worldwide Short Film Fest and more than holding its own against the hustle and Hollywood bustle of the Toronto International Film Festival. At first I believed that it was because I always picked great films. Very rarely did one disappoint.
But there was another aspect plucking at the strings of fan love. Having written the Girls on Film column for over a year now (Happy Anniversary as of April 20!), I realized that I was also enamored with the festival because of the strong and thriving female voice that it, and the world of documentaries, celebrates. It's not unnatural to experience a number of excellent films directed by or featuring women. In the documentary world, women in film is not an anomaly. It's not a feminist vision. It's not a niche segment of the industry. It's just a part of life.
That first year was pure, real-girl glee. I almost melted over Jessica Yu's artistry in tackling a mixture of Euripedes and masculinity with Protagonist, how Jennifer Venditti celebrated uniqueness in Billy the Kid, and how Arne Johnson and Shane King showed the levels with which Girls Rock! Without having an agenda in my choices and assignments, I experienced the intermingled cinematic world we usually only dream about when it comes to narrative features.
Granted, even at Hot Docs the number of female-directed films doesn't clear half and half, but the numbers are a heck of a lot better than most male-female percentages in Hollywood (and monumentally better than Cannes). At this year's fest, roughly 30% of the films are directed by women either solely or in collaboration with male directors. This does not count shorts, of which women also have a decent presence, nor does it count the multiple films by one filmmaker, like the retrospective on Kim Longinotto (linked to her earning Hot Docs' Outstanding Achievement Award).
Making my way through a small pile of screeners and screenings as the fest kicked off last week, I was hit with the anvil of diverse ladydom. The female experience wasn't whittled down to the all-powerful trio of fashion, romance, and motherhood. It might seem like I planned it that way, since I write a column about women in film and all, but by chance, the screeners that arrived on my doorstep, the films I was assigned, and the themes that intrigued me produced a vision of the Hollywood what if? that we're all fighting and hoping for.
It started with a couple shorts from the NFB. First, I slid Namrata into my DVD player. The 9-minute doc features a very simple recollection of Namrata Gill's life (one of the inspirations for Deepha Mehta's Heaven on Earth), and how she freed herself from domestic abuse and found a career fueled by her inner power. The film is not fancy, but it is well done in its simplicity, yearning only to relay the story with a jolt of inspiration before the credits role.
High on Gill, I threw in Flawed and was swept away. Focused squarely on a hand, paint, ink, and paper, filmmaker Andrea Dorfman tells the story of how she fell for her flaws by falling for a plastic surgeon. How they met, became pen pals, and shared art to express their daily lives. How he explained his world of plastic surgery, and how that challenged her attitudes towards both the field and herself. Fighting against preconceptions and never taking the easy way out, it's not only a great story of self-empowerment, but also a great lesson in genuinely listening to and learning opposing beliefs, opinions, and experiences -- both ways.
Not every documentary dalliance can be power-inducing forays, as Maya Gallus' Dish: Women, Waitressing, and the Art of Service can turn even the calm into balls of irked rage. Turning the camera on instances of antiquated inequality in the service industry, Gallus lets her subjects dig their own graves, as frous-frous waiter types in France talk about those emotional and weak women not made for the art of serving, as some Montreal diners prefer their fish with flesh and sometimes full-stop nudity, and how some women in Japan must call their customers master. Infuriating, yet important.
Motherhood came next with Babies, and then a distressing Life with Murder, detailing a young woman murdered by her brother. By Sunday, I was thrown by the artistry of Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished. A review is forthcoming, so I will only say that this is an impressive first feature, revealing a cinematic eye that should go far in the industry as she explores footage from a Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII.
At times, pain is mixed with pleasure. After watching a man try to re-manifest his obsession with Sex Magic (review also forthcoming), I was embroiled in the history of Pakistan with Bhutto.* Telling her story with as many of her words as possible (and some commentary by those opposed to her politics), the film clearly and engagingly outlines the creation of Pakistan, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's rule of the country in the '70s, and how his daughter Benazir became an anomaly of the Muslim world (and world at large) as Prime Minister in the '80s and '90s. It shares her successes, some of her controversies, and how it all led to that December 27, 2007, when she was assassinated upon return to the country after exile.
And the fest isn't even halfway through. The remaining options are practically endless.
Farewell looks into Lady Grace Drummond-Hay and her "desire to break free of the shackles of reporting for woman's magazines ... and become a star for the Hearst Press" by taking a Zeppelin around the world. Grace, Milly, Lucy... Child Soldiers details the world of young girls abducted, trained as killers, and forced into marriages by Ugandan rebel troops. Lucy Walker's Waste Land --about artist Vik Muniz -- has won awards at Sundance, Berlin, and Dallas. Leave Them Laughing offers laughter and tears as one woman tries to make the most of her life as she struggles with ALS...
Not to mention further documentaries that Cinematical has already reviewed like Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's 12th & Delaware and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.
Those who wish to state that there aren't enough talented female filmmakers to compete with the men of Hollywood, and who think women's interests are femininely narrow, need look no further than the world of documentaries.
*Update: Questions about who directed the feature (early and new reports state varying directors) is cleared up in the comment below.