You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

Full Frame: Why Are Women Filmmakers Finding More Opportunities in Documentaries?

Full Frame: Why Are Women Filmmakers Finding More Opportunities in Documentaries?

The Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina started yesterday and runs through the weekend. The documentary fest has a long history of celebrating and raising the profile of female filmmakers. This year, the Grand Jury is all women (Rachel Boynton, Margaret Brown, Ricki Stern), the Full Frame Tribute Award is being given to Kirsten Johnson (“Cameraperson”), and once again the lineup features some of the most talented women filmmakers working in the nonfiction space. Recently, Indiewire checked in with the women directors behind the 19th edition of Full Frame to get a snapshot of the state of women in nonfiction. 

Why are female filmmakers finding more of a home in doc than fiction film? 

Nancy Buirski, Founder of Full Frame and Director of “By Sidney Lumet”:
“Easy, they are less expensive to make. There are less barriers to raise money when the stakes are lower. Indeed, many doc filmmakers self-fund initially, to move their careers or a passion project into gear. Additionally, many of the commissioning editors in TV are women and relate strongly to women’s stories as well as to men’s. It pertains to barriers of entry. A sad reality is that those financing feature films are willing to take risks on untried male directors, but not so on female. In the feature film world, female directors must have proven themselves, somehow, someway, before they’ll get a narrative film funded.”
Eleanor Mortimer, “Territory”:
“When you are making a documentary you can set out on your own – you don’t have to impress people, or assert authority; you can just be you. It seems that in the fiction world you have to insert yourself into a pecking order, which is much more complicated as a woman amongst the male egos that dominate the film industry.”

Dawn Porter, “Trapped”:
“There are fewer gatekeepers in documentary film – less sitting around waiting for a green light.”
Margaret Byrne, “Raising Bertie”:
“I think women are finding more opportunity in documentary rather than fiction not only because funders and broadcasters are supporting diversity, but also because women are creating their own opportunity. I didn’t need anyone to allow me to start making my film, and if I had it would never have existed.”
Ceyda Torun, “Kedi”:
“The main reason my first feature ended up being a documentary is because I needed to jump through fewer hoops to get it made. Not having to wait for cast, talent agents, pre-sales, minimum guarantees, and not needing nearly as much money meant that I could just put a small crew together and go out and shoot.”
Miriam Smith, “The Ground We Won”:
“[S]maller budgets, more creative autonomy, the potential for alternative funding models, the ability to tell different kinds of stories that are less “market driven,” more flexible shooting schedules that can work around childcare.”

Amy Nicholson, “Pickle”:
“It’s almost impossible to answer this without sounding sexist (in the reverse), but I think women naturally possess the traits that you need to make a great documentary. You have to be really organized, compassionate to a fault, passionate about your subject matter, tenacious, tireless, willing to talk to pretty much anybody from any walk of life and be willing do pretty much anything to finish. You also have to be able to slog it out alone in your pajamas 90% of the time. Of course there are plenty of men who have those qualities and they make amazing docs, too. Maybe there is a different set of skills that are important in the fiction world?”
Eileen Hofer, “Nuestro mar”:
“I would say it depends on each level of sensitivity and maybe women have an easier contact with real people. Whenever I shoot a documentary, I’m 100% open to what is around me. I come with a script, but I throw it away the first day of shooting in order to keep my eyes open to what those people or the world will offer me.” 
Virginija Vareikyte, “When We Talk About KGB”:
“Well, I have never been in the fiction world, so it is hard for me to compare the challenges. But it is always about the people one works with, despite whether it is fiction or nonfiction world, there is always a probability of running into someone who considers a woman less of a filmmaker. I‘ve been working mainly on documentaries and in my past I have had experiences with people like that. I had producers who did not want me as a director, even if I had more experience than my competitors. I had to put a lot of efforts to change their mind. This attitude is common not only among male producers, but in the daily surroundings too. When we were making ‘When We Talk About KGB’ and later presenting ourselves as co-directors people always perceived that [co-director] Maxi [Dejoie] was the director, and that I am a girlfriend, assistant, translator or something else.”

Nancy Buirski, “By Sidney Lumet”:
“Having run a documentary film festival (Full Frame) for ten years, I can say there are easily as many female documentary filmmakers in attendance as male. And they come back year after year, whereas males move on to features more often and more easily.”
Kim A. Snyder, “Newtown”:
“Precedent – the ‘Hollywood system’ is just more male centric and dominated and more women are in positions of funding and power in the doc world proportionately. Women have gotten used to accepting too readily that the leap from docs to fiction is less likely than is true for male counterparts in my experience.”

Are Bigger Budget Docs the New Glass Ceiling?

Katy Chevigny, “Deadline”:
“I think when more money is involved, there are more people to answer to, and you are more likely to encounter people who would rather put their faith and money in the hands of a male director. It seems clear to me that when the budgets and prestige gets bigger, the inclination to hire men also grows.”
Kathy Leichter, “Here One Day”:
“It’s still about who you know and what connections you have. I don’t see the big films taking on new talent and taking risks there. There certainly needs to be more women and more women of color and people of color directing the bigger budget docs. There are some women who have made it there, but not many.”

Virginija Vareikyte, “When We Talk About KGB”:
“No, I have not yet found this to be true. But I have not yet made a documentary with a big budget. Maybe for this reason I should rethink my statement above… Yes, unfortunately, for a woman very often it will be twice as difficult. I don‘t know why it is like that, or how and when it will change. However, even having this knowledge, no woman filmmaker will ever give up on trying to bring her ideas to the screen. Filmmaking itself is full of unimaginably difficult obstacles, being a woman in this field just comes with the package. I don‘t believe there are any glass ceiling that would be unbreakable.” 
Nancy Buirski, “By Sidney Lumet”:
“Yes, of course – the bigger the budget, the harder it is to pull off. But that’s not the only obstacle. If you are not making a film that’s a sure fit on TV, the obstacles are much greater.”
Dawn Porter, “Trapped”:
“We shall see. I think people are surprised when I say what the budgets for my films have been. I am just now starting to make a point of disclosing them so no one can say I can’t handle a large budget.”

…. and the Oscars?

Margaret Byrne, “Raising Bertie”:
“You mean the tall white man awards?”
Dawn Porter, “Trapped”:
“Proof in the numbers, don’t you think?”
Katy Chevigny, “Deadline”:
“Yes, same with the Oscars and other big awards. Men are seen as the ‘big talents’ with the wow factor while women may be accomplished and hard-working.”
Amy Nicholson, “Pickle”:
“I don’t really see a huge bias. If there is one in the documentary world, it’s a pretty good secret, because I see a lot female filmmakers and producers win a lot of awards every year. Sheila Nevins has probably had to build a wing on her house for the extra shelf space.”
Kathy Leichter, “Here One Day”:
“We need more women in every category.”
Nancy Buirski, “By Sidney Lumet”:
“Qualifying and campaigning for awards is extremely costly. Again, it’s all about financing, which goes back to who bears the risk.”

Watch this exclusive clip from “Raising Bertie,” which is premiering at Full Frame 2016:

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged , , ,