5 unmissable female-directed documentaries from 2017

Take a look through the female-directed documentaries you have to see this year.

by Alexandra Pollard
20 July 2017, 2:30pm

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

At the Cannes film festival this year, actress and film producer Jessica Chastain watched 20 films in ten days, and came to a somewhat depressing conclusion: "One thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women, from the female characters that were represented," she announced during the closing press conference. "It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest." It's not just in scripted cinema though, that female voices are too often unheard. Documentaries, too, tend to center the narrative of the male experience, or see their subjects through a distinctly male gaze. But that's not the whole story. There have always been, and will continue to be, female artists bringing their voice and perspective to the world of documentary — and these are some of the best ones to look out for this year.

Daisy Asquith's documentary has mined the archives of the British Film Institute and compiled footage that captures the relationships, desires, fears, and expressions of gay men and women dating as far back as 1919 — "a century of gay rights and desires on film." Though it was created to mark 50 years since parliament passed the Sexual Offenses Act, which decriminalized sex between two men, the film explores the intricacies of all genders and sexualities that fall somewhere outside of the norm. It includes footage from a 1964 ITV documentary, whose insultingly dehumanizing description of LGBTQ people was compared by the Guardian to the tone of a wildlife documentary. "Contrary to popular opinion," says the presenter, "they don't look any different from anyone else." In making the film, Asquith says she was "floored by the courage of the gay men, bisexual, and lesbians and anyone transgender or non-binary who came out in the first two-thirds of the 20th century." 

When Laura Poitras began filming Wikileaks founder Julian Assange back in 2010, she assumed the resulting documentary would chronicle the tireless fight for freedom of speech by one of the world's brightest minds. But somewhere along the way, the narrative changed. Assange was called for questioning in Sweden over accusations of sexual assault by two women, the legally tempestuous outcome of which was his indefinite asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Though never questioning the importance of Assange's work with Wikileaks, Poitras' film captures, multiple times, his disturbing attitude towards women — something a different director might have chosen not to include. At one point, while speaking to his lawyer, Assange describes the sexual assault accusations as "a thoroughly tawdry, radical feminist political positioning thing," before saying of one of the women concerned, "She started the lesbian nightclub in Gothenberg." When his lawyer rightly asks why that's relevant, he responds, "She's in that circle. That circle of…" before trailing off. Elsewhere, he wonders if perhaps he should just apologize for "anything I did or didn't do to hurt their feelings," — a facetious turn of phrase that he delivers with a cruel smirk. Without being too heavy handed, the film highlights the irony of a man whose legacy is built on pursuing accountability being seemingly determined to avoid facing any himself.

Casting JonBenét
If you watch Kitty Green's documentary in the hopes of learning new truths about the infamous murder of 6-year-old child beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey, you'll likely be disappointed. This is no ordinary documentary — there's no stock footage, no voiceover exposition, and no interviews with the people directly involved. Instead, Green auditions actors local to JonBenét's hometown of Boulder, Colorado for the parts of JonBenét, her parents, and the police detectives involved, and then has them re-enact the events of 1996. The most revealing aspect of the film is not the grisly recreations though, but the wild and intrusive speculations the aspiring actors throw out during their interviews, and the personal traumas they're willing to divulge and exploit in their attempts to secure the role. They recount tales of child abuse, cancer, sibling murder, finding dead bodies and covering up their children's crimes, while heaping judgement on JonBenét's family and disclosing unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. There are moments of genuine empathy and compassion, but it is also an insight into collective voyeurism and the vicarious pleasure people sometimes take in another person's suffering. 

A Suitable Girl
Shot over four years, Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra's partially crowdfunded documentary dissects the pervasive culture of arranged marriages in India. The film follows three single women, revealing through their stories the societal and personal pressures put on young Indian women to find a husband, and taking the audience through the process of arranged marriages. The filmmakers cut 750 hours of raw footage into a compact 90-minute film, so it's a snapshot rather than the whole story — but one that takes pains to avoid over-simplification and prejudices. Each of the film's three subjects has their own unique story. One is reluctantly engaged to a man who wants to relocate her 400 miles to his small hometown, another is the 24-year-old daughter of a professional matchmaker, and the third is a 30-year-old who is told by a dating service employee that her struggle to find a husband is probably down to her weight. With a creative team made up entirely by women of color, A Suitable Girl was met with rave reviews when it premiered at Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. 

All This Panic
"I thought I'd be more comfortable in my own skin by now," says 17-year-old Dusty partway through All This Panic. "I don't think I'm as grown up as I should be." It's a sentiment shared by pretty much everyone who's ever been a teenage girl. Shot by Jenny Gage over three and a half years, the doc follows seven young women living in New York City as they navigate the turbulent, confusing, joyous minefield of adolescence. Poised on the brink of a million possible futures, their impending adulthood is one that thrills and paralyzes them in equal measure. Though it's filmed with an almost claustrophobic intimacy, the girls speak with such candor you wonder if they've forgotten there's cameras on them at all. They dye each other's hair, talk about crushes, sex, self-harm, their parents' divorce, and awkwardly grapple with their sexuality — all with a warmth, humor, and clumsiness no script could have done justice to. There's moments of thought-provoking insight too. "The teenage female body is so oversexualized," says Sage, one of the few African-American girls at her private school. "People want to see you, but they don't want to hear what you have to say." Gage does though. In fact, she calls this profoundly affecting film "my love letter to teenage girls."


Text Alexandra Pollard

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