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Forget Hollywood: Watch Documentaries if You Care About Women

At the 2015 Hot Docs film festival, 40 percent of filmmakers are women. It's a stat that Hot Docs is excited to share, and rightly so.
April 22, 2015, 6:08pm

A still from 'Speed Sisters.'

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Brenda Myers-Powell runs an after-school program for teenage girls. At one of her weekly sessions, she tries to emphasize how important it is for girls to say "no" if they're not ready to have sex.

"It already did happen," one girl interjects. She says she was only 11 years old when an older man raped her at a friend's house. She didn't tell anyone for years.


A few seats away, another girl speaks up, saying she was "a lot older" when it happened to her. She was 14 when a friend of the family first raped her. He raped her almost every night, but when she told her mother, she said her mother didn't believe her.

Another student was nine when she was raped by her 19-year-old cousin.

One girl was raped from the age of nine to 14. She says her sister was only four-years-old when someone tried to abuse her. She did everything she could to make sure that didn't happen—and she has scars to prove it.

It's an incredibly upsetting scene and one that's all caught by Kim Longinotto in her documentary feature Dreamcatcher.

"The thing is, Brenda's been with those girls for a whole year and none of them had spoken about it. And she's been saying, 'I'm going to help you not have sex with boys until you're ready,' and then they go, 'We've all had to have sex; we've all been raped,'" Longinotto explains.

"I thought that was extraordinary and that they chose to do it when we were there with them, I think that's no coincidence. I think they thought 'At last, here are some people [who] are going to listen to us. There's a point in telling our stories.'"

When moments like this are captured on film, it's made incredibly clear just how vital it is to give women the opportunity to tell their stories.

Kim Longinotto 's 'Dreamcatcher.'

But the fact is, we don't do that enough. There are not enough stories about women on our screens. There are not enough films with women characters. I could spell this out with stats (like this one: women comprised just 12 percent of protagonists in the top 100 grossing films of 2014), but, let's be real, we all know this.

For every Angelina Jolie-led action flick, there are three starring Tom Cruise. For every The Heat, there's 1,000 other buddy cop movies that don't star women. For every Batman, Superman, Iron Man and Spiderman film there's…well, Catwoman and Elektra happened.


Documentary films are often praised for having better female representation—and in a lot of ways this is true. Women are more likely to direct documentaries than narrative films, for example. (One study looked at all the independent documentary and narrative features screened at 23 US film festivals in 2013/14 and found that women accounted for 28 percent of directors working on documentaries, and only 18 percent of directors working on narrative features. While nowhere near parity, both figures become more impressive when you learn that only six percent of the top 250 grossing films in 2013 were directed by women.) But even in the documentary field, more stories about women need to be made.

Related: "VICE Meets the Director and Star of 'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night'"

If you look at the Academy Award winners for Best Documentary Feature for a sample of what's on offer, you'll find a long list of films by men that are largely about men. In the past ten years, we've seen four features about men take home the Oscar (


, the only winner directed by a woman;

Searching for Sugarman




Man on Wire

), three issue-based films (

Inside Job

, about the global economic crisis;

Taxi to the Darkside

, about the US Army's use of torture; and

An Inconvenient Truth,

which follows Al Gore as he lectures about climate change), two about animals (

The Cove


March of the Penguins

), and only one that could be considered about women (2013's


20 Feet From Stardom

, which puts the spotlight on back-up singers, most of whom were women).

A large segment of the population is drastically underrepresented in film today. Women, and especially women from diverse backgrounds, have to look way too hard to see themselves on screen. That's not OK.

At the 2015 Hot Docs film festival, 40 percent of filmmakers are women. It's a stat that Hot Docs is excited to share, and rightly so. More women behind the camera is obviously a good thing. But that doesn't mean that 40 percent of films at the festival are about women, star women, or have anything to do with women. VICE spoke with some of the directors who have films with female leads screening at the festival and asked them why it's important to tell women's stories.

"I find it so sad that we even have to even ask these questions, really—that there's not enough films with strong female characters," says Amber Fares, director of Speed Sisters, a film about an all-woman car racing team in Palestine. (It's as amazing as it sounds.)

Fares' film follows five women in Palestine as they train together and then compete against one another throughout the course of two racing seasons. It's Palestine as you've never seen it before, and it's certainly not the image of Middle Eastern women presented in mainstream Western media.

"Every place has more than one story," says Fares, a Canadian director with Lebanese heritage who has lived in Ramallah. "In the Middle East, there tends to be one particular viewpoint that comes through and that's usually women being extremely oppressed and shown as being covered, and it's religious and it's very particular.


"It's not like that doesn't exist—it definitely does exist—but just like everywhere else in the world, it doesn't define an entire region."

For Fares, it was important that her film confront gender stereotypes, but also stereotypes about life in the Middle East.

"We need to see a spectrum of possibilities," she says.

That's precisely what all of these documentaries present.

Violeta Ayala's 'The Bolivian Case.'

In Violeta Ayala's film, The Bolivian Case, we learn about three Norwegian teenage girls who are charged with drug trafficking. Instead of asking us to question the guilt or innocence of these women, Ayala asks us to confront how gender—and also race and class—affects how we assign guilt. Kim Longinotto's Dreamcatcher introduces us to Brenda, a former sex worker (and all-around powerhouse of a human) who now helps other sex workers stay safe and get off the streets if they so choose. Sophie Deraspe's The Amina Profile tells Sandra Bagaria's story. She was in an intense online relationship with "A Gay Girl in Damascus" blogger, Amina Arraf, until Amina disappeared. The film recounts Sandra's journey to find Amina, and also to find out exactly who Amina really is.

All of these films present audiences with images of women that challenge us, and they provide us different perspectives on the world. Women can and should make films about whatever they want, of course, but if they choose to make films about women, well frankly, their perspective is needed.


"If the image is more complex, if it comes from many angles, or many perspectives—not only a man's perspective—maybe then women can be more comfortable with their differences…as well as their motivation, the way they see their body, but also their role in society," says Deraspe.

Then there's the fact that films about women just make for great stories.

"Lots of stories that inspire me are centered around women. I'm not just thinking, Oh, I'll go and make a film about a woman. I'm thinking, where's a story that will really inspire me and will make me feel excited? Recently, they've been about women," says Longinotto.

Longinotto has actually spent the better part of her more than 25-year career telling stories with women at the center. So what's the appeal?

"I think if men were shot in the head for going to school, or [if] men were locked up from 11 years-old and got married off to 60-year-old women, you know, if you turn it around, I think probably more of us would be making films about poor men," she says. "It does seem that, on the whole, these things are happening to women. And, actually, it makes more interesting women, because the people [who] seem to change things and [who] are at the forefront of change are women, in my experience."

And in case you'd forgotten, or if mainstream movies have you confused, women actually make up a pretty significant portion of this planet's population. If we're looking for reasons to make more films about women, that's a good one too.


"The idea of not having strong female stories when they make up at least half of the population, if not more, is just insanity," says Charlotte Cook, director of programming at Hot Docs.

When choosing which films will screen at the festival, Cook says that Hot Docs takes female representation both behind the scenes and on screen very seriously. It's really important, but, as she says, "so [is] making sure we have very diverse filmmakers too, and also diversity on screen and in tone and craft and style."

Of the 210 films screening at Hot Docs, 99 are either directed or co-directed by a woman—that's actually 47 percent of films with a woman behind the camera.

We know that if a woman works behind the scenes, there's an increased likelihood that we'll see women on screens. In a study of the top 100 grossing films of 2014 (excluding foreign films), researchers found that in movies with exclusively male directors and writers, women accounted for just four percent of protagonists, while men made up 87 percent of protagonists and male/female ensembles accounted for the remaining nine percent. In films with at least one woman director and/or writer, however, women made up 39 percent of protagonists, men made up 35 percent of protagonists and ensembles accounted for 26 percent.

So the fact that 40 percent of filmmakers at Hot Docs are women is, again, really great. But until we actually see a more equal representation of women on screen—at festivals, in movie theaters, and on our TVs— there's still work to be done.

"We can say let's get more women filmmakers, that's not the point. The point is to have more films that are actually about change and that women can relate to, that have different parts played in them by women. It's not just getting more women to make films," says Longinotto.

That's only one step. We need to start taking leaps.

"I think things are changing. Today we are discussing that there is no representation of women in film. Ten years ago there wasn't even a discussion about it. So we are progressing," says The Bolivian Case director Violeta Ayala. She adds: "I don't think it's happening fast enough, of course.

"I think little by little we're making things happen."

Follow Regan Reid on Twitter.