Female Directors: Documentaries You Should See

Disclaimer: I really, really hate that I still need to put ‘female directors’ at the top of this post, because the default for a director is overwhelmingly male. Okay, that said…

Though the film industry is notorious for being male dominated, female directors tend to fare ever so slightly better in the documentary industry. Since 1967, at least 12 women have won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, in comparison to just Kathryn Bigalowe for the Drama Best Director award. There are a few probable reasons for this – one being that a vast many documentaries are made independently and out of sight of large studios, who may otherwise be very unlikely to put their money into a film directed by a woman. Documentaries are, on average, cheaper to produce. This means less capital needs to be provided by investors and larger distribution companies – giving the director more freedom.

Though all is not yet equal in love and documentary film-making, this does mean that there are more documentary films directed by women than there are fictional films. Documentaries do tend to be a bit of a niche, though Netflix’s expansive catalogue of docs has made the genre kind of ‘cool’ again. I’ve compiled a little list below of the female directed documentaries that everyone should see; political, social, impact and biographical.


What Happened Miss Simone (dir. Liz Garbus)

Opening the 2015 Sundance film festival, What Happened Miss Simone is a emotional roller-coaster ride through the life of Nina Simone – icon, activist and performer. Traditionally biographical, Miss Simone searches through Nina Simone’s life, the ups and the downs, and slowly uncovers a phenomenal person. A true activist, and wise beyond her years, Simone was plagued with mental illness and depression – informing her work throughout her life. Liz Garbus’ documentary is engaging, beautiful and heart-breaking. She expertly peices together archive footage with Simone’s performances and interviews with thsoe who knew her.

Dreams of a Life (dir. Carol Morley)

Carol Morley’s docu-drama telling the story of the haunting fate of Joyce Carol Vincent is a film which will top documentary lists for years to come. The true story of Vincent’s death in a small London flat in 2003 was unremarkable, except for the fact that she was undiscovered until 2006 – and only then by the local authorities when it became apparent she was no longer paying her utility bills. Morley saw the story in a newspaper and was inspired to discover how a seemingly friendly, outgoing young woman could die so painfully alone in that way. As expected, Dreams of a Life is tragically sad, but a fantastic watch from beginning to end.

The Arbor (dir. Clio Barnard)

The Arbor has frequently been described as an experimental documentary, masterfully directed by Clio Barnard. The film takes us through the life of Andrea Dunbar, working class Bradford play-wight, and the issues that plagued both herself and her family. Though the interviews are all recorded by Dunbar’s mother, father, daughters, friends and acquaintances – Barnard cast actors, who lip-sync the dialogue on-screen. It makes for a really unique experience, as well as critiquing the entire documentary genre in itself. Again, it isn’t a cheerful watch but it’s revealing about the nature of the media, of success and of film-making in general.


Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield)

The Siegal family are, at the beginning of Queen of Versailles, one of the richest families in America. Before the economic crash of 2008, they had just embarked on building what was to be the largest house in the States and director Lauren Greenfield had begun filming the family and their day to day routines. What happened next was unprecedented. The 2008 crash engulfed the Siegal family business (timeshare apartments), and Greenfield manages to capture the anguish, tension and breakdown of a family unit. What begins as a look inside ‘how the other half live’, Queen of Versailles speaks volume about family, greed, wealth and what it means to be happy.

Lioness (dir. Meg McLagen and Daria Sommers)

Lioness follows a group of five female veterans, part of the first women to be permitted to fight in direct ground conflict. Directors Meg McLagen and Daria Sommer’s explore the difficulties the women have faced, mostly due to the lack of support and training given to the group post and pre-conflict. Though Lioness uses archive, news excerpts and observational footage, it is the intimate and revealing interviews with the women themselves that sets this film apart. Pulled together, it creates a haunting and desperate account of those forgotten in war, the Lionesses.


The Lords Tale (dir. Molly Dineen)

The UK has some pretty weird traditions surrounding politics, and the House of Lords is one of them. Filmed over a crucial ‘reconstructing’ of the House of Lords, Molly Dineen’s documentary observes the results of the House of Lords Act of 1999 as the hereditary peers are whittled down from 800 to 93. For those interested in politics, The Lords Tale gives an unbiased view of the act and raises some very interesting questions about the idea of democracy. For those uninterested in politics, it is the characters within the film that are truly engaging. From the typical old, white toffs who seem to have no understanding of the real world to those who seem to be doing some genuine good in the world – it is the absolute honesty of the interviews that makes the film so special. Though you do have to wonder why some of them are allowed to make significant decisions for the country – especially when they can’t list names from 1 – 42 in order of preference…

The Square (dir. Jehane Noujaim)

Premiering at Sundance Festival, and receiving universal accalaim – Jehane Noujaim’s The Square depicts the day to day lives of those struggling against a political regime poised to destroy everything they stand for. In stark contrast to the Western media’s portrayal of the conflict in Egypt, Noujaim brings us close to the reality of activism and the fight for freedom. It’s a truly inspiring film, lifting a lid off one of the biggest conflicts in our world today. Expertly shot and directed, The Square is a film that everyone should see.


Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

When Blackfish came out in 2013, it completely changed the face of impact documentaries. Since it’s release, Seaworld has suffered financial losses, and has subsequently stated that it will phase out it’s orca programme over the next few years. Blackfish focused primarily on Tilikum, an orca who had been captured and raised at Seaworld Orlando, and had been responsible for several human deaths in his time there. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a relative newcomer to the documentary industry, unveiled the horrific treatment of the orcas and shocking statistics about orcas lives in captivity vs in the wild. It’s a tough watch, but a fantastic documentary that has prompted real change.

The Divide (dir. Katharine Round)

Katharine Round’s 2016 documentary about the levels of inequality in the Western world could not come at a better time. For most of us, we have heard the statistics and seen the figures, but The Divide turns those (essentially) meaningless figures into actual, real human beings. We meet people who live at both ends of the spectrum and many who live somewhere in the middle – what becomes immediately clear is that everyone is striving for a better life. The unfairness of the economic system, the causes and effects of the 2008 crash and the struggle just to get through the day are all realised in Round’s documentary. Sit up, pay attention and see for yourself.

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