Women have a long history of being catalysts for social change. Lois Scott and all the women profiled in Harlan County U.S.A. were a pivotal force in gaining support for the coal miners' strike from the surrounding community. Barbara Kopple, director of Harlan County and American Dream, is one of the most prolific and important female documentary directors in cinematic history, but she's not alone. The streaming suggestions below, all available on Netflix, are documentaries featuring women or genderless social movements or political issues, all made by female filmmakers.
She's Beautiful When She's Angry [Mary Dore, 2014]
Director Mary Doe and her team comprised of almost entirely female filmmakers explore the women that founded the modern feminist movement from 1966 to 1971. One of the great aspects of the film is that it recognizes the movement's flaws---it highlights the issues with sexual orientation, race, and leadership that makes it easy to criticize the lack of intersectionality with the benefit of 50 years hindsight. She's Beautiful When She's Angry [how about that loaded statement in the title, by the way] combines archival footage, dramatizations, performance, and interviews with past and present activists to see how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.
Girl Rising [Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri & Richard Robbins, 2013]
Girl Rising tells the story of nine girls throughout the world overcoming barriers to education. Each segment features a young woman, a female writer from the young woman’s home county, and narration by a well known actress or artist. The film explores the stories of young women from Cambodia, Haiti, Nepal, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Peru, Sierra Leone, and Afghanastan, and how they’re overcome all of the barriers in places actively trying to prevent women the access to education. It’s heartbreaking and inspiring all at once, and serves as a reminder that we still have a long way to go towards equality.
The Square [Jehane Noujaim, 2013]
Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary, The Square explores the events leading up to, during, and after the Egyptian Revolution. The title references Tahrir Square in the capital city of Cairo, where Noujaim spent weeks living with the activists and community during the turbulent protest. Inspiring figures tell their stories dispersed among footage of large protests in the square starting from early 2011 with the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Although the film is a bleak portrait of the repercussions of civil unrest, it beautifully captures the dedication and sacrifices of the people.
The Queen of Versailles [Lauren Greenfield, 2012]
Building one of the largest homes in the United States is no small feat---a lesson that David and Jackie Siegel learned the hard way. The Queen of Versailles follows the life of excess of this family and how quickly dreams can be stalled due to the financial crisis. Although Jackie is a less-than-likely antihero whose self-awareness is fascinating, she is a self-made woman from humble beginnings, once an aspiring model who put herself through college and was a manager at IBM before starting a family. Jackie becomes an incredibly complex and surprising figure, not without faults, but not at all what you expect. Among the funniest documentaries ever made, The Queen of Versailles also deftly explores the financial crisis in a unique way through its unique profile.
Miss Representation [Jennifer Siebel Newsom & Kimberlee Acquaro, 2011]
Miss Representation is extremely timely considering the recent nomination of Hillary Clinton as the first female presidential nominee from a major political party, as the film examines the representation of women in the media and how it dramatically impacts the self-worth of girls and women. The films explores the pervasive sexism in marketing, news media, politics, film and television, and what brought us to this point in history where women make up 51% of the population but are represented so negatively, when at all, in our culture. It is a riveting and frustrating look at how invisible the problem can be even when it is constantly in our faces.
Aside from these streaming picks now on Netflix, here are some other female-helmed documentary suggestions available for digital rental: The Punk Singer [Sini Anderson, 2013], After Tiller [Martha Shane & Lana Wilson, 2013], Roll Out, Cowboy [Elizabeth Lawrence, 2010], Paris Is Burning [Jennie Livingston, 1990].