On the heels of a Tribeca Film Festival that had its largest contingent of female directors ever, Hot Docs is screening strong documentaries by strong women ABOUT strong women: “Mavis,” which of course is about the unsinkable Ms. Staples, whose decades long career as a member of the Staples Singers and as a solo artist shows no sign of easing up any time soon. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” in which the prolific Liz Garbus takes on the formidable Nina Simone; and Ivy Meeropol’s subtly scary “Indian Point” includes the likes of Marilyn Elie, one of the more persistent foes of the nuclear plant which, for decades, has been percolating unsteadily just 40 miles north of New York City.
Ironically, perhaps, motherhood helped get Edwards into her film. “We saw Mavis perform in Brooklyn; it was the first concert we took our baby to,” she said, referring to her filmmaker husband, Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”). “She was so dynamic and I was so inspired I came home and went on Netflix and said, ‘I want to watch see a documentary about this woman.’ And there wasn’t one.”
It was a situation that needed correcting. “I called her management,” Edwards said, “and her management had been having the same idea.”
It took a number of years for Edwards to complete the film, likewise Meeropol, who told her Tribeca audience that she was inspired to make the film “because I saw it every day from the train on my way home.” It’s a movie that’s painstakingly even-handed, while still pointing out the enormous safety issues involved with having a nuclear plant in such a densely populated region, and the sordid politics behind oversight of the industry. Let’s just say it won’t do much for the popularity of Congress. At the same time, Meeropol (“Heir to an Execution”) expressed enormous gratitude to Brian Vangor, the control-room supervisor and 30-plus-year veteran of Indian Point, who actually shot the footage in the film from deep within the plant.
“If I didn’t have access, I didn’t have a film,” she said. “That’s why these movies take so long; they’re about relationships.”
It’s unlikely that any awards season soon will see a repeat of last year, which for docs was sort of a perfect storm: A movie (“Citizenfour”) that was urgent, timely, blessed with once-in-a-lifetime access, a once-in-a lifetime story – and which happened to have been made by a woman. This year, the choices will actually be more palatable to awards voters – fiercely independent movies about musical legends, or maybe one with about the safety of 14 million New Yorkers. And which happen to be made by women.