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Prolific author, keen observer, insightful storyteller, compulsive writer, incisive tweeter. Joyce Carol Oates is all of these things and more, as director Stig Björkman makes abundantly clear in his thoughtfully constructed, affectionate documentary Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in Service of Mind. Tracing Oates’ life and career over the course of several decades, Björkman makes it clear that she has well earned her reputation as an iconic American writer.

The film was born out of Björkman’s longstanding friendship with Oates — though it still took him some convincing to make it happen. Because while Oates is no stranger to attention or the media, she’s also quite private and self-effacing, preferring to share her voice with the world through her books. And that she has, ever since her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, was published in 1964. Of course, that was far from the first book she wrote. As she recalls in the film, she was driven to tell stories from girlhood on, completing and throwing away multiple novels, stories, and more before ultimately becoming an acclaimed professional writer.

The details of Oates’ personal life are interwoven with the stories behind her stories. She was born on a farm in rural New York and was the first person in her family to complete high school, let alone college. Her entry into the wider world opened her large eyes in many ways, and she was fascinated by everything, from her fellow co-eds to the political and cultural upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s. All of it influenced her work: She’s known for being inspired by real-life people and incidents, using them as jumping-off points to explore complex themes.

Björkman skillfully combines current interview footage of Oates with news clips (of both her and world events), vintage photos, and voice-overs by Laura Dern, who reads passages from several of Oates’ books. The end result is a portrait of a slight but strong woman who has never hesitated to say what she feels needs to be said (her tweets about Donald Trump notoriously pulled zero punches) but has always kept part of herself in reserve, protecting herself with the countless characters she has created. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Loren King Maybe it took a filmmaker from outside the US — Swedish director Stig Björkman — to cast such clear light on esteemed writer Joyce Carol Oates. At the start of his Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind, we find out that Björkman, whose credits include the film Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, pursued the private Oates for nine years. Persuaded by his persistence and obvious integrity, Oates agreed to make this film. It’s a gift to the viewer. The documentary manages to be both comprehensive and expansive about Oates’ life, influences and decades of dedicated work that’s yielded hundreds of novels, memoirs and short stories. She’s candid about her hardscrabble childhood in “primitive” upstate New York, growing up with a grandmother who introduced her to books but kept secret the fact that she was Jewish; her struggles at Syracuse University as a scholarship student; her early years as a writer; and the social and cultural events that helped shape her astounding body of work. Rich with archival footage and career-spanning interviews, the film is an insightful look at what distinguishes Oates, who’s still going strong into her eighth decade, as one of the world’s preeminent authors. It’s not the same as reading her books, but the film is an illuminating companion.

Pam Grady: Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most celebrated and prolific writers of our time – she published seven novels just in the space of the making of this documentary. To date, she has written over 60 books, countless short stories, essays, poems, and more. And that doesn’t even count her tweets, which are numerous. At 85, she shows no signs of slowing down, rushing to get her words down on paper. This engrossing film, full of interviews, home movies, and other archival materials, gets to the heart of a brilliant career. While actor Laura Dern – who enjoyed an early success with the film Smooth Talk, adapted from an Oates story — reads excerpts from the author’s work in entrancingly illustrated segments, Oates tells her own story in both old interviews and ones made for the documentary, defining her life and her work in loving detail. Whether one is an old Oates’ hand or is discovering this remarkable woman and her writing for the first time, this film is essential viewing.

Sherin Nicole We throw around the word prolific, yet no one catches that title and juggles it like the author Joyce Carol Oates. In a documentary that is part conversation and part master class, Stig Bjorkman explores the mind and times of this great American novelist. Themes of social divides, family dynamics, and the disguises women wear are her legacy; this is her backstory. A Body in the Service of Mind is as warming and as intimate as a quilt, with as many layers. Interviews and motivations, quotes and milestones, heritage and heart. This cinematic biography wraps you up in it all. JCO is charming in her frankness and inspiring in her craft—but the scenes with the love of her life, when she giggles to the point of sliding down in her chair, are the ones not to be missed.

Leslie Combemale Documentary filmmaker Stig Bjorkman should be lauded for his sheer stick-to-itiveness in getting Joyce Carol Oates to agree to be the subject of his film. She famously said “If you want to meet me, you will find me in my books.” She may be a prolific writer and voice on social media, and yet proves to be very reserved onscreen for someone with so much to say. Bjorkman definitely gets her comfortable enough to speak in-depth about her life and career. She has, at times, been controversial, but her feminist perspective has permeated and influenced our culture for decades, as viewers less aware of her work will see in A Body in the Service of Mind.

Nell Minow: The contrast between all of those big ideas engaging so fearlessly with issues that most people find daunting and the delicacy of Joyce Carol Oate’s presentation is one of the delights of this rare look at the life of one of the world’s most intriguing writers. Laura Dern’s narration of Oates’ writing is entrancing. But the heart of the film is Oates’ quiet, almost reluctant comments about her family, her husbands, and what impels her to write.

Jennifer Merin Filmmaker Stig Bjorkman, a longstanding friend of Joyce Carol Oates, gives us a respectful and intimate documentary that spends its hour and a half on current interviews with Oates, as well as clips from her past interviews with Dick Cavitt and other broadcast presenters and select readings from her writings that are voiced by Laura Dern over footage of Oates at work, or hiking through the countryside. Oates’ strongly liberal political stance against Donald Trump and her campaign of very pointed anti-Trump posts on Twitter are also covered. If you’re a Joyce Carol Oates devotee, this documentary will give you insights that enhance your appreciation. If haven’t read any of the 58 novels written by Oates since 1963 or any of her poetry, memoirs, plays, essays and novellas written under pseudonyms, you’ll want to do so after meeting her in Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in Service of Mind. Read full review.

Nikki Fowler: Greenwich Entertainment’s documentary Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind is a beautiful and informative look into the life and work of the beloved and award-winning novelist by the same name, who not only wrote a series of novels drenched immensely in gender, race, socioeconomics, and politics but who wrote dramatic novels sans politics under pseudonyms which she described as getting to “start over” and “to write as if she were “writing for the first time.” Read full review.

Liz Whittemore In Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in Service of Mind, director Stig Bjorkman paints a picture of the renowned author, cleverly weaving interviews, tweets, archival footage, and in-the-moment musings, introducing movie audiences to a sharp, fearless, witty, kind, and undeniably brilliant woman. Laura Dern’s luscious vocal stylings give life to readings of Oates’ various writings. The music by Mathias Blomdahl is reminiscent of a Nora Ephron film. It has that jaunty, jazzy feel of New York in the Fall. Hopping from genre to genre and diving head first into culture and politics, we learn Oates continues to be a fierce feminist icon in her writing and personal life. Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in Service of Mind is a uniquely shaped portrait of an unapologetic creative.

Cate Marquis Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in Service of Mind is less a biographical documentary than an intriguing exploration of the works and career of Joyce Carol Oates, with occasional forays into the personal life of the famously reticent novelist. Still, director Stig Bjorkman is a friend of the author, and the documentary had more access than would have otherwise been possible. Now in her 80s, the prolific, much lauded, famously shy Joyce Carol Oates is still active as a writer, and while she has received many honors, the focus of this documentary rests firmly on the work itself, with excerpts read by Laura Dern. Joyce Carol Oates herself does appear frequently, in interview footage throughout her long career, talking about her works, her inspiration – key among them are Lewis Carroll – and her process and very occasionally, about her own life. Still, there are surprises and even revelations that await those who delve into this well-made, fascination documentary.


Title: Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in Service of Mind

Director: Stig Björkman

Release Date: September 8, 2023

Running Time: 94 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriters: Stig Björkman, Dominika Daubenbüchel, Stina Gardell (Documentary)

Distribution Company: Greenwich Entertainment

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).