In Reality, We Must Demand Equal Representation for Women Documentarians, Too – Victoria Cook comments

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Victoria-CookI read a whole bunch of Oscar predictions over the holiday and it got me thinking about how there is a misperception that the documentary category is more inclusive, less sexist and less racist than the other categories. There’s been lots of talk about the underrepresentation of women and people of color as directors in the entertainment industry as a whole (see the NYT Sunday cover magazine issue, the Forbes article, the Variety article about the 7% statistic, Jennifer Lawrence speaking out, etc) and specifically about the underrepresentation of women in the major categories at the Oscars but there is no public discourse about this also being a pervasive problem in the documentary category, this despite the fact that in the past 20 years only one female director (Laura Poitras) and one female co-director (Zana Briski) won in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Reflecting Upon Stories of the Underrepresented

Part of the misconception might be due to the fact that documentaries themselves often tell the stories of the underrepresented and involve issues of social justice which may make it feel like it is a more inclusive category but does not actually make it so. Especially because as far as the docs that win go, the Oscar rarely goes to these kinds of films, instead they go to the docs that are about global politics or economic issues or historical docs (which doc subjects I love by the way but there are also tons of great films about personal stories or “small” stories that are just as important and also often deal with those same subjects but in a less explicit more metaphorical way a/k/a storytelling).

Dismal Stats from the Academy

Perhaps this misconception is because the doc branch of the Academy is reportedly 40% female but the dismal statistic that less than 10% of the winners in the last 20 years have been women shows that even a branch with many women voters fails to hand the award to other women let alone to people of color. The very fact that it is a more diverse voting group may more likely reflect that in the days before documentaries were seen as commercially viable and were viewed by the Academy as an “eat your spinach” or as a more academic category, women were not shut out from the higher echelons but as documentaries have become big business the doors immediately started closing even by other women.

In a business where winning an Oscar can mean being paid higher fees on the next film, having more creative control, and being given the ability to cross over into directing fiction or commercials (or electing not to because with an Oscar the career of documentary filmmaking itself becomes more sustainable), winnowing down the category to 90% white men is not only outrageous because I know in my bones that in the last 20 years many of the best documentaries have been directed by women, but it once again serves as a gatekeeper to stopping women directors from having bigger and more profitable careers.

Facing the Problem and Making Changes

Given that the New Year is a time to make positive changes and the first step in doing so is to take an honest view of what our problems are in the first place, it seems like a good time for the doc community to recognize that it suffers from the same problems as the entertainment business as a whole. I hope that in 2016 we see a change across our business that is more inclusive of all different kinds of filmmakers (including different types of filmmaking itself that continue to get shut out like The Act of Killing or The Wolfpack) and I especially hope that this is driven by the documentary community whose spirit has always been a deep desire to tell the stories of those that have historically had no voice.

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