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Categories: Features

Avery T. Phillips catalogues the significance, power and motivation behind women working in documentary filmmaking today.

Storytelling is an intricate and vital art form that serves to pass down our history. Humans have been telling and passing down stories for thousands of years in verbal and written format to keep their stories and traditions alive.

Now, with digital technology and online connection, it’s easier than ever to document our lives and share our stories. Not only does this allow for better historical documentation, but it also makes cultural awareness more possible.

Through digital storytelling, it is possible to see different cultural and societal roles around the world. One thread of history that has been told through documentary filmmaking is the oppression and triumph of women.

Though women have been largely treated unequally in the history of humanity, they have also risen up past the confines of society to pursue their own destinies. Many documentaries are dedicated to showing these struggles and victories shared by women all over the world.

Documentary Filmmaking

In general, documentaries have the unique ability to present snippets of a period of time. They portray points in time, showing recorded moments and movements, allowing witnesses to share their experiences and feelings firsthand.

Recent influential historical documentaries include Milk, Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Full Metal Jacket, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Though these are feature films that were fairly popular in the U.S., these films provide a similar value to society as other historical documentaries. Filmmaker and writer Miranda Mungai expresses their value:

Their importance is primarily in the fact that they present us with a story of the past, one that we can learn from in context or one that is a painful reminder of how unchanged the present remains. Although they are rarely completely positive tales, this list charts those that are not perfect, but show all sides to the story and ultimately present a necessary truth to viewers that needs to be addressed – not dressed up in excessive positive or even negative representation.

Sharing Her Stories

As for documentaries that show the female story, there are many. Here are a few recent documentaries that have shown different narratives about female struggle.

A Different Narrative

The documentary Frame by Frame archives the period of time when the Taliban ordered a media blackout in Afghanistan and the photography industry that bloomed once it was over.

In an interview about her documentary, filmmaker Alexandria Bombarch explains how she captured “the beauty, hope and complexity of Afghanistan” and what she intended for audiences to get out of it:

I think we are used to seeing one narrative from Afghanistan – but there is so much more to know then what we see in the Western media. When we can’t see the full picture, we can’t say it’s the reality. There are so many stories that go unheard. I hope this film sheds a light on the storytellers who are capturing more than just the headlines.

The film helps the audience to see a different side of Afghanistan and inspires solace and understanding for its citizens. It shows the country through the eyes of native photojournalists who have a true comprehension of the daily life there, from past struggles to current success.

Cultural Awareness

While Frame by Frame is told through the photography of the local people of the story, Tobacco Girl takes place in a town with limited technology. In this small and endangered community in the Turkish mountains, 600-year-old traditions are kept alive.

This documentary follows the story of a young girl, named Mumine [pictured above] who gets up at three in the morning to work in a tobacco field with her family. Though she suspects she is soon to be married, Mumine has big dreams for herself and wants to continue her education.

As told by The Spread, Tobacco Girl illustrates the gender roles that Mumine is trying to escape from: “The girls should be married by the age of eighteen, and the boys and men can marry a little bit later; but most people marry young. Girls leave school after completing eighth grade; ready for their arranged marriage.”

Tobacco Girl sheds light and international awareness of a small community that has remained largely untouched by modern times. Mumine’s story is typical in traditional communities where girls are expected to marry young at the cost of their education.

Sexual Assault

In the face of the #MeToo movement, conversations about sexual assault have been more open and public. While this is a major step forward, there is still much that needs to be uncovered and addressed. The documentary I Am Evidence addresses one of these issues: the alarming number of untested rape kits in law enforcement.

In a letter from the producer, Mariska Hargitay states the importance of the film and expresses hope that the film will inspire action:

The backlog can be difficult to comprehend: hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in law enforcement facilities across the United States. Hundreds of thousands of kits. Untested. For years, many for more than a decade, as statutes of limitations run out. And behind each of those kits, a person—a sexual assault survivor—waiting for justice, waiting for closure. Or not waiting anymore, because it’s just been too long … My fervent hope for this film is that it will be a catalyst for action, that it will move you to learn about what is happening around the backlog in your community and in your state, and that it will motivate you to join this movement to end this injustice once and for all.

Though rape is not just a female issue, the majority of victims are female. Duquesne University reports that the rape kit backlog represents the failure of law enforcement to take sexual assault seriously. According to them, there are over ten thousand untested kits in individual cities across the United States.

Gender Roles

One of the films at the Sheffield Film Festival 2016 was Sonita. This film tells the story of talented rapper, Sonita, as she tries to pursue her dreams. However, it is difficult since she is a refugee teenager living in Iran.

When her mother shows up to force her to marry for money, the documentary editor intervenes to help. He can either offer money to her mother to stall the marriage or help Sonita apply for a scholarship to study music in the United States.

While the ending is “touching and refreshingly positive,” it also “conveys the sad truth about young Afghan girls, who, not even women yet, are forced to relinquish their own personal happiness and aspirations to meet unfair societal expectations.”

Self and Global Awareness

Understanding the endeavors and challenging realities of women around the world is important. Not only can awareness help bring aid to the people facing these types of challenges, but also to understand the diverse communities in the United States.

Since the U.S. is a melting pot, it is important to know the many stories of our people.Through cultural awareness, we can better understand the stories of the people within our own communities. This can also help professionals, such as nurses and doctors, practice cultural awareness to give better service to their patients.

Films are typically created for entertainment, but documentaries can help spread education and awareness. They can help tell the stories of women around the world and assist in providing equality to every corner of the world.


Posted on Apr 16, 2018

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