I've been watching a lot of documentaries lately and have realised how much perspective & learning they offer in a rather effortless sort of way. I must say that even though books may always be my first love, I've certainly begun to find the medium of film an interesting & dare I say, slightly lazy way to learn. :) After writing my blog on Feminist books that are worth your time , I felt inspired to write one about documentaries that I consider feminist & worth watching because of what they reveal about patriarchy, inequality but also courage & fairness in our world. So here is a list of 10 documentaries that are worth watching for the feminist in you.

ps: Fun fact - most of these are created by women!

I. Feminists - What were they thinking?

This 2018 documentary film directed by Johanna Demetrakas is educational & thought provoking. The film is anchored in the book 'Emergence’ by Cynthia MacAdams, with portraits published in 1977 of well known & ordinary women - "because women looked different as a result of the feminist movement". They looked like they were free to be themselves. Leading feminists of the time, including Lilly Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Flo Kennedy & many more share their thoughts on topics like identity, abortion, race, childhood and motherhood. The movie shows us the struggles & challenges that women who came before us had to face so that we could have the freedoms we enjoy today. At the same time it also makes you think how much of those same struggles are still faced by women today and how much work remains to be done in the movement. A great watch!

II. Miss Representation

Miss Representation is an American documentary film written, directed, and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. The film explores how mainstream media contributes to both the under-representation & misrepresentation of women by showing limited, unrealistic and often reductive portrayals of women. The film features not just facts & analysis but also personal stories shared by the likes of Jane Fonda, Rachel Maddow, and Katie Couric about why they are so invested in shifting this phenomena.

This one has been around a while and still remains one of the most scathing & powerful call outs of how poorly women are represented in the media. It clearly illustrates how women’s bodies are commoditised, objectified and misrepresented, and how that leads to a spectrum of horrifying consequences such as normalised violence against women, deadly eating disorders & a reduced quality of life for women. I never was one to take what’s on TV & magazines seriously, I thought it was all frivolous stuff, until I watched this documentary. I realised the power of every photoshopped, half naked, fully airbrushed image of a woman had on young girls & grown women, along with the men they engaged with. How the lack of women producers, directors, writers, journalists created half baked male narratives that forced women to only see themselves through male eyes. And I never took the power of the media lightly again. I feel great that we’re seeing a significant shift in our movies, TV shows, magazines & books today where more women & people of different races and nationalities are taking the spotlight. Stories are being told by & about women such that the way women are perceived & what is expected of them is moving a little bit closer to what’s real. But we have a long way to go & we need to keep demanding better diversity & standards from the media industry.

This documentary is a Feminism 101 sort of watch, it is foundational but powerful in that it will shift your mental models about what “good” looks like on your screen. A classic everyone should watch!

III. The Ascent of Woman

The Ascent of Woman  is one of my favourite documentaries because it traces the stories of women who significantly shaped history over the course of the last 10,000 years. Dr. Amanda Foreman, the creator of the four part series, narrates with precision & passion as she invites us into fascinating historical women’s times & lives. From Turkey, Siberia & Greece to India, China & Vietnam, these women, who are so typically erased or misrepresented in erstwhile historical texts, show us that women’s history has “veered wildly between extremes of freedom and oppression, inclusion and exclusion.” Foreman investigates the origins of patriarchy, the silencing of women, the rise of the veil, and how  the status of women declined as humanity became richer, more powerful, and more urbanised. She examines the complicit role of women is crafting reductive, limited ideals of gendered roles. She also showcases stories of exceptional women who defied the entrenched male intellectual & religious ideals of their times by creating their own thriving worlds.

This film helped me recognise the powerful legacy of our foremothers, who survived & often thrived in oppressive circumstances, and left us the gift of courage & the wisdom of the true expanse of womanhood. It also made me see that the world has seen several eras & places where the feminine principle has been deeply valued, revered even. And that throughout history, the status of women has been strongly correlated with peace & harmony. A must watch!

IV. Knock Down the House

Knock Down the House is a 2019 film directed by Rachel Lears. It closely follows the primary campaigns of four progressive women democrats - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin. These women refused corporate funds for their campaigns and stood against politicians who had remained unchallenged for a decade or longer, and were being funded by big oil, pharma, wall street & the like. These women worked grassroots campaigns, each with an energy & drive that will put an olympic athlete to shame! Eventually Cortez won in a landslide victory & has since then brought a firebrand energy to the US congress, challenging big corporates & corrupt politicians alike. For me, the film was emotional but also enlightening. Most importantly it left me hopeful & inspired. These women have endured great loss & difficulty in their respective lives and yet found the courage to challenge an enormous, powerful & entrenched political system. I was hooked to Cortez in particular and wondered - how does a 28 year old fight like a viking warrior, debate like a political scholar, nurture her team like a seasoned leader & yet carry all the vulnerability of a soft heart filled with kindness? She was just amazing to watch and she is a true role model not just for women leaders of the future, but anyone in a political leadership position. The film is heartbreaking & heartwarming at the same time and it will leave you with a hope for a better future. You will shed a tear or two of joy along the way too, just like I did!

V. Jane Fonda in Five Acts

I was overjoyed when I found this documentary online on Hotsar, because I’ve been in love with Jane Fonda since I was a little kid! She continues to be one of the most inspiring heroines for me even today! Most well known for her Oscar winning acting performances & exercise videos, she was also one of the leading figures in both the feminist & peace movements in America. You get to travel alongside Fonda on her life’s journey and get a peek into her inner world. She has always been known as an outspoken, courageous woman who has defied rules & taken immense risks for the causes she’s passionate about. But this documentary lets you know her more intimately, in all her complexity, with her charisma, insecurities, struggles & vulnerabilities - and the moving way in which she keeps growing & evolving, even at 80+. This is one of those documentaries that I will watch again & again in the time to come. It’s personal, human & deeply moving.

VI. Athlete A

This is a 2020 documentary that follows the Indianapolis Star’s journalists as they investigate & eventually publish the story on Larry Nassar, the now disgraced, and former “doctor” for US Gymnastics. The film follows the team of reporters who investigated claims by several young olympic gymnasts about the mental & emotional abuse perpetrated by the organisation to push these athletes to be “tough”, and eventually uncovered several charges of sexual abuse by young gymnasts against established coaches. These charges were constantly dismissed or buried by the organisation while silencing the girls,  leading to continued abuse. Larry Nassar, who was the organisation’s blue eyed boy travelled everywhere with the olympic athletes, and it is now proven that he sexually abused the girls before, during & after the events right under the noses of the authorities. He is now behind bars, but not before nearly destroying the spirit of several elite athletes, some of whom are now grown women, still in recovery from the trauma. As I watched clips of these same women performing surreal gymnastic feats at the olympics, I could hardly gather my head around how they managed to do it despite the abuse they were subjected to! The film is devastating & heartbreaking as it reveals a culture of inhumane performance-pushing in elite gymnastics, and also the systemic silencing of women who try to fight back sexual, emotional or mental abuse. And yet, at the same time the film is inspiring as it shines a light on the brave women & their allies who refused to give up, fought back against a corrupt organisation & eventually triumphed.

VII. Untouchable

“Why didn’t she say something?” This film will tell you exactly why! The forces that the rich & powerful have amassed can oppress, silence & get away without being held accountable. Perhaps not forever, but for too long. This film by Ursula Macfarlane, offers us a reality check on the abuses of power by men like Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who was accused by several women & eventually found guilty. Macfarlane also shines a light on the culture of complicity & silence in Hollywood, where everyone knew about Weinstein’s horrific behaviour and chose to maintain a facade of ignorance about it.  The good part - as Weinstein’s story unraveled, it gave birth to the #metoo movement, which provided a much needed vital force & impetus to the feminist movement. The film once again shows us how women are systematically dismissed, made to feel powerless & their voices consistently disbelieved.  It also helps us see the power of speaking out & standing in solidarity with those who have been wronged & had the courage to speak out.

VIII. Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich

I will say for starters that the 2020 series Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich by director Lisa Bryant is not for the faint hearted. It left me deeply disturbed & unsettled and yet I think it’s an essential watch because it reveals the institutional exploitation, silencing & oppression by the rich & powerful of our world. The series is based on the serial sex offender Jeffrey Epstein & the havoc he wrought in his victim’s lives. The four-part documentary features interviews with several survivors, along with former staff members and former police chief Michael Reiter, a key individual from the first criminal case against Epstein. While the horror stories told by the survivors made me question our sheer sanity as the human race, what disturbed me most was how the lives of hundreds of young, vulnerable women were far less valuable to rich & powerful institutions, than political connection & wealth. The justice system failed repeatedly and it took decades to bring this man to justice. And yet, I saw the light of hope as the film traced those from this same failed system who persevered & continued to fight including investing police officers, judges & attorneys. Likewise, as devastating as the stories of the surviving women might be, they continue to live with dignity & courage, which to me is no small feat!

IX. Period. End of Sentence

This 2018, award winning documentary short directed by Rayka Zehtabchi, is about how the women of a small Indian village revolutionised menstrual hygiene perceptions & practices. After initial resistance, the women learn how to operate a machine that makes low-cost, biodegradable sanitary pads and then run a successful social business by selling these at affordable prices. This helps shed some taboos & misconceptions about menstruation in the villagers while empowering the women of the village financially. The film is inspired from the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social activist from Tamil Nadu, India who invented the low cost pad machine. I was disappointed to know that the protagonists of the film, eventually did not find a happy ending as they couldn’t find the money to fulfil their dreams. So perhaps in real life, things aren’t as rosy as the film will have you believe. Nonetheless, it’s a good watch because it showcases a welcome cultural shift & presents hope that change is within reach.

X. Becoming

I wrote about this beautifully written book by the same title in my earlier blog, if you're a lazy reader, watch the documentary directed by Nadira Hallgren instead!

I hope you enjoy watching these films, learn a thing or two along the way & find a spark of inspiration!

Cover image credit:Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

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