Let’s cut to the chase: Hollywood is sexist.
It was one of the biggest entertainment stories of 2015. Called out by Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, reinforced year-round by Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence, and taken up as a serious issue by the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the lack of female film and TV directors and Hollywood’s widespread discriminatory pay practices generated a lot of attention in the last year.
But what about the more gender-friendly documentary film industry?
Surely, the world of nonfiction, with its prominent female directors (Barbara Kopple, Chris Hegedus, Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy, Lucy Walker, Jehane Noujaim, Laura Poitras) and powerful female producers (Sheila Nevins, Molly Thompson, Lisa Nishimura, Sally Jo Fifer, Justine Nagan) wouldn’t be biased against women?
But that was the question posed by entertainment attorney Victoria Cook in a lengthy Facebook update that went viral on the day after New Years. Since its posting on the morning of January 2, the missive has generated fierce discussion among female directors, producers and directors, and been re-published at The Female Gaze blog under the headline, “In Reality, We Must Demand Equal Representation for Women Documentarians, Too.”
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“There is a misperception that the documentary [Oscar] category is more inclusive, less sexist and less racist than the other categories,” wrote Cook, who represents several narrative and documentary filmmakers, including several former nominees, Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy, Amy Berg, Marshall Curry and Eugene Jarecki. But pointing to the fact that only one female director (Laura Poitras) and one female co-director (Zana Briski) have won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature since the mid-nineties, Cook lamented “the dismal statistic that less than 10% of the winners in the last 20 years have been women.”
“It was originally a Saturday morning weekend rant,” Cook told Indiewire. “The next thing I knew, it really struck a nerve.”
The Community Speaks Up
Indeed, the post received support from a diverse body of powerful doc insiders, from the Sundance Institute’s Keri Putnam and Tabitha Jackson (“So very well said”) to documentary directors Heidi Ewing (“it’s so true”) and Amy Berg (“Very true!”). Some advocated for a new women-centered awards-giving body; others said the problem was a lack of female TV critics, journalists, and influencers. There was talk of “actionable next steps,” calls for more research and data, setting up meetings at Sundance and with the editorial page editor of the New York Times — and even, perhaps not surprisingly, making a movie about the issue.
It’s not the first time that questions of sexism have dogged the documentary business, which according to studies, still remains far more inclusive than narrative filmmaking. (Reports suggest about 40% of documentaries at the top film festivals were directed by women, compared to 18% of narrative features.)
But in 2014, when the Academy snubbed such beloved female-directed docs as Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish,” some critics cried foul. (See PBS writer Tom Roston’s “When Will the Women of the Documentary World Get Their Due?”)
While it’s true that white men have directed the vast preponderance of Oscar-winning documentaries in the last two decades, the Academy Awards have always been a dicey evaluative category, prone to other areas of politicking and internal controversy (see, for instance, Scott Foundas’ 2004 story “Docs on the Rocks”).
And what might come as a surprise to critics of the Academy, the early nineties saw a solid five-year run of women-directed Oscar winners: Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream” (1990); Allie Light and Irving Saraf’s “In the Shadow of the Stars” (1991); Barbara Trent’s “The Panama Deception” (1992); Susan Raymond’s “I Am A Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School” (1993); and Freida Lee Mock’s “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” (1994).
But what has happened since?
Perhaps, as Cook suggests, the rise of documentaries’ prominence in the film industry has come along with a concurrent gender bias. Per Cook, “As documentaries have become big business, the doors immediately started closing.”
To wit, most of the early nineties Oscar winners were not popular or financial hits. But as the documentary industry took off in the mid-nineties, with greater budgets and theatrical distribution, male directors began to dominate. As Tom Roston noted in his 2014 article, the top-grossing documentaries of all time have almost exclusively been directed by men (with the exception of #9’s “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” co-directed by Jane Lipsitz, and #24’s “Mad Hot Ballroom,” directed by Marilyn Agrelo, who has not made another feature doc since). Outside of the top 25, a few others emerge: #28’s “Tupac: Resurrection,” directed by Lauren Lazin, who has also not made a theatrical doc since, followed by #47’s “Buck,” directed by Cindy Meehl, who has yet to make her follow-up.
Here, it may be fitting to level the “old boys’ club” accusation, even to documentaries. “We do have an auteur theory,” Cook said. Indeed, directors such as Michael Moore, Davis Guggenheim, Morgan Spurlock, Morgan Neville, Asif Kapadia, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and James Marsh are arguably garnering bigger budgets and more high-profile distribution slots than their female counterparts.
According to research done by the Sundance Institute, Keri Putnam said in a reply to Cook’s post, “Women are less represented in higher budgeted docs.” Putnam also noted that while about 40% of documentaries across the festival were directed by women, the percentage of female-directed docs in the higher profile Documentary Premieres section, which includes more experienced filmmakers and higher budgets, “are fewer,” Putnam wrote. In Sundance 2014’s Documentary Premieres section, for example, only two docs were directed by women out of 11 total.
Also as part of the Facebook discussion, filmmaker Heidi Ewing, at Sundance this year with a documentary about Norman Lear, explained that “lower budgets may have allowed [women filmmakers] in the door” of the documentary world, but it hasn’t allowed them to thrive in terms of accolades.
Julie Parker Benello, executive producer of “The Queen of Versailles,” among others, echoed the sentiment. “It’s time for more parity in the bigger budget docs and doc awards for women…so there can be more sustainability in doc careers for women filmmakers. With some key women gatekeepers in the doc distribution world at HBO, Netflix, etc., we need to ensure they are consistently hiring women filmmakers for bigger budget films/episodic series.”
It’s Not Just About Women
While Cook’s Facebook post and the ensuing discussion focused mostly on women in the documentary field, Cook told Indiewire she also wanted to foreground the lack of representation of people of color. “It’s very easy for this to be about women, but I’d like to have a conversation that’s also really inclusive about race,” she said. “While it’s true that women are not getting into the highest echelons as easily, they are working. But people of color in the doc space? We should be ashamed of the numbers.”
Others on Facebook were also adamant about expanding the discussion beyond just women in the industry.
“I feel like we don’t talk about class, or age, or nuances of gender beyond the male/female binary, yet none of these issues can be separated from a conversation about race,” said Jennie Livingston, director of “Paris is Burning.” “If you miss the confluences of gender, race, and class, it’s hard to have a conversation that’s real. Or that’s meaningful in a practical sense to the hard work of changing our industry.”
Documentary producer and director Esther Robinson added, “As bad as it is for women it’s WAY WAY worse for filmmakers of color — again, in an industry with many, many subjects of color.”
It’s difficult to know where all this passionate discussion will lead.
While Cook said there is a concrete effort for a meet-up at Sundance, she acknowledges that she’s just a lawyer — not an activist. “I’d like to have more of a public conversation,” she said. “I don’t know if talk on Facebook leads to anything beyond click and shares, but maybe the conversation can actually start something.”