The Best Documentaries of 2019 Directed by Women

2019 has been an enormous year for documentary filmmaking. With streaming sites like Netflix bringing audiences the likes of Fyre on the infamous Fyre Festival that never took place and Knock Down The House on America’s female candidates running for congress and challenging the status quo, documentaries have become more accessible and mainstream than ever before. Documentaries have also become more vital than ever before with television networks like HBO bringing forth documentaries like Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly which have been instrumental in uncovering and bringing to light widespread abuse, providing a voice to both men and women who have been repeatedly silenced and ignored. The year has also seen women within documentary filmmaking thrive once again both on and off the camera. Documentary filmmaking is a space where women have found far more opportunities and open doors in terms of directing, writing and editing than they have in the realm of narrative and fictional filmmaking. Many have put this down to the lack of barriers that exist within documentary filmmaking, with there being proportionately less difficulties in terms of finance and production, making it far more accessible for women to make films. Taking a closer look at the documentaries made by women this year what is found is an abundance of eye opening films that are providing new representation and perspectives on the world we know, from films such as Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth by Jeannie Finlay to For Sama by Waad Al Kateab, documentaries are proving to be instrumental in challenging and reshaping societal norms and exposing human rights violations that have been left ignored for far too long. So as the year draws to an end, here are some of 2019’s best documentaries made by women: 

Seahorse dir. Jeanie Finlay 

Seahorse by documentary filmmaker Jeanie Finlay follows Freddy McConnell as he carries his own baby and starts a new family as a transgender man. We are with Freddy through his journey at its most happiest and its most hardest. We witness his personal relationships with those around him bloom and wither, we are with him as he battles through the gruelling IVF process, as he reads his first positive pregnancy test, through his struggles with body dysmorphia and we are ultimately with him through the birth of his beautiful baby. Finlay documents Freddy’s life over the course of three years with such care and compassion that the camera, which would otherwise feel intrusive in such personal and intimate moments, instead feels like a familial hand helping Freddy through it all. Through documenting his journey, Freddy provides people with a better understanding of gender identity, challenging societal norms surrounding pregnancy and parenthood and calls for a more open and tolerant society. Freddy lets us into such a personal and significant part of his life that it feels nothing short of an honour to be able to experience his journey with him.

One Child Nation dir. Nanfu Wang 

One Child Nation by Chinese-American filmmaker and first-time mother, Nanfu Wang, is a powerful and personal investigation into the reality of what the one-child policy that was enforced within China truly meant. Wang exposes the devastating truth of the one-child policy and the trauma it left in its wake as she brings forward first-hand accounts, using testimonies and interviews to gather evidence on what the policy —the effects of which have been deeply repressed and ignored in China— entailed. Interviewing her family members and her community in China, what is uncovered are numerous cases of forced sterilisations and abortions, widespread abandonment of babies and state-enforced kidnappings. Wang exposes and deepens our limited knowledge of the sheer horror of what the policy meant as she interviews the women who were forcibly held down in order to be sterilised, the perpetrators, as well as an artist and photographer who reveals the images he took of babies left in rubbish heaps. Nanfu Wang reveals the extent of brainwashing and propaganda involved in sanctioning the one-child policy and how it continues to exist today and is now, in turn, encouraging families to reproduce due to a dire recline in population, due to the very policy that should never have existed in the first place. 

For Sama dir. Waad al-Kateab 

For Sama is a devastating first-hand account of life and war in Syria that reveals the full extent of what it is to live, survive and love in a country being relentlessly bombed. Filmmaker and Journalist Waad Al-Kateab filmed over 300 hours of footage of her life in Syria which was then condensed into this 95-minute feature documentary. Al-Kateab films every aspect of her life with her husband Hamza who sets up one of the last remaining hospitals in Aleppo amidst catastrophic destruction and conflict. In doing so what is witnessed are the countless lives of children and civilians lost, families and homes devastated and torn apart. We see Waad fall in love, get married and give birth to her baby daughter, Sama. It is extremely difficult to watch the reality of the faces and bodies of children whose lives were needlessly lost far too soon but it is essential viewing for the world to open their eyes to the true reality of the situation within Syria. For Sama has been screened at the United Nations and Waad’s archival footage has been submitted as evidence of war crimes. By providing a first hand account of the atrocities taking place within Syria For Sama has demanded urgent action. 

Hail, Satan? dir. Penny Lane

Not really knowing what to expect is probably the best way to dive into Hail, Satan? As it takes you on a hilarious and eye-opening journey into Satanism within America and challenges everything you thought or assumed Satanism to be. What is found at the heart of The Satanic Temple is a community of people who are deeply compassionate, open and tolerant. The goal and fight of The Satanic Temple is simply religious liberty; that people are free to believe in whatever religion they choose to, that it should not be imposed on people and should be completely separated from the law. There is a specific focus on that of conservative Christiantiy dominating America and its affect on women’s rights in terms of banning abortions and being anti-LGBTQ. Penny Lane interviews the people at the heart of Satanism and what is found is a growing force that opposes dominant and authoritative religion that feeds into the nation state, controlling its governmental policies and affecting societal rules and traditions. Hail, Satan? is a vibrant investigation into a community that yearns for a new American era. You might  be surprised to find yourself wanting to convert to Satanism by the end of this documentary. 

Varda by Agnès dir. Agnès Varda 

In her final film Agnès Varda traces the entirety of her filmmaking life, from her early rarely seen documentaries on subjects such as the Black Panthers to her most world renowned films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Le Bonheur. Agnès sits and talks to us like an old friend as she shares her thoughts and feelings on cinema, the films she has made and the people she has worked with whilst dipping in and out of various scenes from her monumental filmography. It is almost dreamlike as we journey through her memories, guided by her voice detailing her artistic life and exploring not just her films, but her art, photography and installations, grounding her not just as master of the French New Wave and avant garde filmmaking but as a true artist filled with enormous talent, wit and intelligence – a figure that will be greatly missed. 

Shooting the Mafia dir. Kim Longinotto

Much like Varda by Agnes, Shooting the Mafia is an introspective, autobiographical portrait of the life of photographer, journalist and former politician, Letizia Battaglia. Never without a cigarette and colourful hair, Battaglia muses on her early life, her longing for freedom, her many lovers and what led her to take some of the most striking black and white photos of the murders, poverty and despair that the notorious mafia, Costa Nostra, wreaked on Sicily, Italy. When reflecting on her photographs many of which display bodies decapitated, blood flooding the streets and the faces of women besieged with grief, she notes that what came with taking these photographs were feelings of embarrassment and shame at photographing people’s trauma but ultimately, her photographs had the ability to confront the perpetrators and hold them to account. When reflecting on coming face to face with the head of the Costra Nostra himself and pointing her camera directly in his face she quips happily, “imagine how they felt being photographed by a woman.” Kim Longinotto captures the immense strength, defiance and in Letizia’s own words the “crazy” within herself that allowed her to continue her work despite the death threats and murders of the people who dared challenge the mafia. 

The Kingmaker dir. Lauren Greenfield 

Handing out crisp banknotes from her car window to poverty stricken children on the streets of the Philippines we are presented with Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines and self proclaimed mother of the world. Immaculately dressed, covered in diamonds and surrounded by a swath of servants, her words and actions of good intent fall incredibly empty as the documentary progresses. Married to the late president Ferdinand Marcos who was in power for 21 years what is revealed is Imelda’s power behind the scenes of the family’s reign with years upon years of ill-gotten wealth, which resulted in billions of the nation’s money being hoarded within the Marcos family. Lauren Greenfield evidently displays this as she captures rows upon rows of designer shoes, dresses, paintings by Picasso and Matisse and gold plated ornaments that surround Imelda as she talks about her life. What is also revealed is the immense poverty and state-sanctioned violence that the Marcos family inflicted on the Philippines with the establishment of Martial Law, which resulted in thousands of deaths. Greed, gluttony and abuse of power is revealed to be at the heart of the Marcos family which continues to this day as Imelda still strives to establish her political dynasty with her son BongBong Marcos and niece Imee Marcos continuing to hold immense political power within the Philippines. 

by Elise Hassan

Elise Hassan is a Global Cinema and Screen Arts graduate about to pursue my masters in Film Programming and Curating in London. She loves to watch and write about feminist cinema from the Middle East and North Africa and some of her favourite films are Spirited Away, Mustang, 13 Going on 30 and Wadjda. You can find her on twitter @hassan_elise

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