SFIFF59: A Case for Female Documentarians

SFIFF59 made a strong case for supporting the work of female documentarians. I have been thinking a lot recently about how female documentarians are good at effacing themselves for the service of the story, and several of the festival’s films proved my point. Though women are telling, framing, and editing, the film is not about them. By contrast certain male documentary filmmakers (Michael Moore and Werner Herzog come to mind) tend to impose upon the narrative and the process such that their stories can be upstaged, their filmmaking skills notwithstanding. In Melissa Langer’s My Aleppo, the filmmaker literally embeds herself in the home of a Syrian family who are living in South Africa; however, the film is squarely about their frustration at not being able to help their families who are stranded in Syria. We almost don’t notice her in their modest living space. She is so confident in the integrity of her story and in the compelling normalcy of her subjects that their extraordinary story can be told without her comment or her shadow even as we understand that her presence is necessary. Likewise, in Cizre, belit sağ manages to focus on her subjects’ stories even as you hear her interviewing them and even as they gaze directly at her. They talk to her, they respond to her, and yet they are the subjects, not the objects. Finally, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson effectively shows how a female gaze can create a respectful space around women who speak about the different types of violence inflicted upon them. It is a remarkable skill to be able to allow deeply personal stories to still belong to their tellers, even as we partake of them, and I think that this skill is abundant and evident in many of of our contemporary female documentarians.

See also:
Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady)
Mill Valley Film Festival and the Gender Gap
Alice Rohrwacher

My Aleppo, dir. Melissa Langer, 19 min., 2015. Winner of the SFIFF59 GGA New Visions Award.
Cizre, dir. belit sağ,15 min., 2014
Cameraperson, dir. Kirsten Johnson. Big Mouth Productions, et al., 2016. Winner of the SFIFF GGA Documentary Feature Award.

These films screened at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21st – May 5th, 2016.