People have been making documentary films for a whole century now, with documentarists tracing their roots to Robert Flaherty’s 1922 silent film, Nanook of the North. Since then, filmmakers have followed his footsteps to create documentaries about everything under (and beyond) the sun — from environmental justice to cultural icons and queer history.
For the filmmakers on this list, however, the focus of their documentary work is on a concept that has been the subject of much controversy and online vitriol. It’s a concept that’s become a dirty word in parts of the world, and whose supporters have even been branded enemies of certain states.
It’s a concept that dares to posit that women (and non-binary folk) should have the same rights and opportunities as men — a concept that’s called feminism.
The F Word
Since the first wave of feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, different people have defined the concept in different ways. But at its core, feminism is the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.
As a range of social movements and ideologies, feminism tackles many issues. Rooted in the first wave’s struggle for women’s right to vote, which was won a century ago, feminists today fight for women’s bodily autonomy, equal pay, equitable work, and media representation, as well as women’s right to take up space in fields like science, literature, and politics, and in issues like the climate crisis. Intersectional feminism also takes into account how overlapping identities based on race, class, religion, sexuality, and disability can affect all of the above.
Today, 6 out of 10 women describe themselves as feminists, while 4 out of 10 men do. And among those who do not identify as feminists, many still believe that women should have the same rights as men.
Through Her Eyes
Not everyone can read through the work of feminist writers like bell hooks (a trailblazing black feminist gone too soon), Simone de Beauvoir (whose 1949 book The Second Sex inspired second-wave feminism), or Adrienne Rich (whose feminist activism brought lesbian issues to light, too). But if you’ve got a few hours to spare, then these documentaries can fill you in on different types of feminist thought, and issues that women around the world face today.
These films tackle heavy themes, which I describe below, and so trigger warnings are in order for sexual violence, rape, transphobia, and suicide.
Feminists: What Were They Thinking? (2018)
In 1977, photographer Cynthia MacAdams released a book of portraits called Emergence, aiming to capture an awakening among women embracing feminism and shedding all the rules and restrictions taught to us in relation to what a woman should be. In this 2018 documentary, director Johanna Demetrakas revisits these photos, and the times and the women depicted in them.
Featuring candid interviews with Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, the film is a good starting point for learning about second-wave feminist activism in the 1970s. But perhaps more crucially, it also situates this history within today’s continuing struggle for equality, using news clips, commercials, memes, TV shows, and YouTube videos alongside interviews and MacAdams’s photographs.
The film explores themes like identity, race, and motherhood, and the interviews are fascinating on their own. Though far from a comprehensive look at the history and ideas of feminism, the documentary’s website does provide further resources for those looking to learn more after the film’s 86 minutes are up.
The Mask You Live In (2015)
One of the biggest misconceptions about feminism is that it’s against men and only benefits women. But one of the ways misogyny ruins everyone’s lives is that we’ve come to think of caring and empathy as things women do, and we’ve all heard the same pervasive lie: women are emotional, while men are logical. Because of this, we teach our boys to bottle emotions up, and they suffer for it.
Helmed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, this documentary focuses on sexism’s effect on boys and young men, and how the rigid ideas our society has of what it means to be a man or a woman harms them, too. Her inspiration for the film came when she was pregnant with her son.
“It was really important to me that I could nurture a son who could be true to his authentic self, who wouldn’t always feel like he had to prove his masculinity,” she explained in an interview. “There’s so much loneliness, pain, and suffering when one is pretending to be someone that they’re not.”
The film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and features people from fields like psychology, sociology, neuroscience, sports, and education tackling the growing problem of men’s mental health and suicide. Though some parts of the documentary can get a little dark, the film, ultimately, is hopeful.
Miss Representation (2011)
Before The Mask You Live In, Newsom first worked on the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, which focuses on the media’s portrayals and treatment of women, and how this affects real-life women, and the choices they are socialized to make.
The film packs in a lot of history, analysis, and even proposed solutions, using archival footage as well as interviews with young women and figures like Geena Davis, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Lisa Ling.
It’s also the oldest film on this list. The dated style might give it away, as do a few of the examples. There’d be more outrage, for example, about some of the sexist comments and reports shown — just imagine the scathing TikToks kids today might make of them. But sadly, the issues raised are still relevant a whole decade later.
For example, the 2011 trailer points out that though women make up 51% of the US population, they only occupy 17% of the seats in congress. As of 2021, that number has risen to 27%, which is the highest it’s ever been but still far below parity. Moreover, the documentary also discusses the problem of women’s representation behind the camera — something that continues to be an issue today.
Period. End of Sentence. (2018)
It’s 2021, but menstruation is still a taboo subject in and out of America. As recently as 2018, a survey found that nearly half of all American women have experienced period-shaming. But in the town of Hapur, India, a small group of local women is quietly leading a revolution, as Rayka Zehtabchi captures in her Academy award-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence.
The 25-minute film is inspired by the work of social activist Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a machine that allows people to manufacture low-cost sanitary pads using locally sourced natural materials.
A lack of access to menstrual hygiene products has meant that women in places like Hapur face health problems and challenges to schooling. But looking to change that, the production team and their partners raised funds from the other side of the world to purchase one of Muruganantham’s machines.
The resulting documentary tells the story of these local women who learn to use the machine for themselves and their greater community — highlighting how the fight for equal rights and opportunities can take on different forms around the world. As the film’s protagonists name their sanitary pad brand FLY in the hopes that women can soar, the documentary also shows the role of men in ending period stigma.
City of Joy (2016)
“There is a life after all we survived,” a woman says at the end of the trailer for Madeleine Gavin’s 2016 documentary, City of Joy. The film centers on the eponymous City of Joy, a community center for women survivors of violence in a country that has been hailed the worst place in the world to be a woman.
For the past two decades, rape has been used as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence has been ongoing since the aftermath of the Second Congo War and, as the film highlights, because of mining. Many multinational companies are at play, and in one scene, Gavin shows a map of all the mines in the country, marked red with incidents of rape.
Thus, the film serves as a reminder that systematic violence against women does not happen in a vacuum. In contexts like this, it’s used as a weapon for economic power, dehumanizing women for the sake of expensive and aptly named “conflict minerals.”
But aside from the harrowing tales of women who enter the City of Joy and the global mining industry behind them, the film is also about what women achieve within the community. The first class of students learns about sex ed, journaling, survival skills, and self-defense while healing together and sharing their stories.
It’s ultimately about finding community and strength, both among the women-students we meet and the unlikely trio that founded the community: Dr. Denis Mukwege (a devout Congolese ob/gyn), Christine Schuler Deschryver, (the director of the City of Joy), and Eve Ensler (radical, Tony Award-winning playwright of The Vagina Monologues).
The Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital is the busiest maternity ward on earth, averaging at a dizzying 60 childbirths a day. Here, delivering a child is less an intimate moment of welcoming life into the world, and more of a group project: Mothers share beds, advice, experiences, and even milk.
In Motherland, Filipino-American documentarist Ramona Diaz takes us through the ward’s daily chaotic rhythms in cinema verité, which is a fancy way to say there are no talking heads, no obtrusive music, and no voice-overs. The result is an intimate, sometimes shocking, but ultimately moving film about motherhood, community, sexual freedom, and agency.
For Diaz, it was the community and agency of these women that drew her in. “There’s a kindness and a grace that I didn’t expect—it’s really incredible,” she said in an interview. “Also, it was very important for me to not define [the women] by their poverty or their disempowerment. They are human beings. They are sexual. They are funny. They are very bawdy. They are human beings. It’s really important that the audience see that.”
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen
Despite a rising number of people knowing someone who is transgender, little has changed in terms of actual acceptance of trans people, especially among those aged 30 and above. Part of what’s fueling this problem, as argued by Sam Feder’s Disclosure, is that what many people know about transness is based on what the media tells them — and it’s not good.
With the likes of Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, and Lilly Wachowski as interviewees, Disclosure unpacks the problematic history of on-screen portrayals of trans people from as far back as silent films. It explores how trans people are often seen suffering and dying because of their identity, their bodies portrayed as either objects of disgust or of surgical curiosity. That is, if they’re even shown at all.
Today, there’s still a big reluctance to show trans people on screen in ways that aren’t dehumanizing. 2021’s West Side Story, for instance, features one (1) trans character — and some countries are banning the film because of it. Some films even erase black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson from the gay rights movement altogether.
All this just goes to show that the intersection of sexism, transphobia, and racism is not a good place to be. Trans women are women, after all, and are subject to the same everyday horrors of misogyny on top of transphobia. Meanwhile, trans men experience sexism from both sides of the coin. This makes Disclosure a crucial reminder of how much work there is left to be done in prioritizing trans lives, both on screen and in real life.