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Review: Game Changers - Inspiring Women Documentary Series

July 16th, 2018     by Marta Balcewicz     Comments

Image: Mankiller, Luminato Festival

Today’s political climate is hardly encouraging. With daily news headlines detailing further and further encroachments on fundamental human rights, with the kindling of rhetoric and aggression against disenfranchised groups, it’s easy to feel defeated, angry, or hopeless. It might sound trite, or just overly optimistic, but exposing myself to a documentary series on powerful, revolutionary women had an incredibly lifting effect. I recommend it as a form of self-care, a 70-minute to two-hour respite, and a boost for your own political capacity.

This year’s Luminato Festival, in partnership with the Hot Docs Festival, presented “Game Changers,” a six-part documentary series on women who changed the world. The first feature, Mankiller (2017), directed by Valerie Red Horse-Mohl, presents the story of Wilma Mankiller, the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, a role she served for three terms. Named one of the most important leaders in America’s movement for equality by the organizers of the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington, Mankiller’s long and impressive list of achievements have led the Cherokee Nation to become one of the most economically successful tribes in present-day America. Battling her family’s own poverty and the sexism inherent in the political structure of her tribe, Mankiller embarked on a mission of grass-roots activism, whose results ranged from bringing running water to her birth town of Bell, Oklahoma to her signing a Cherokee Nation self-determination agreement with the U.S. government, which granted the Nation power over its funding, programs, and services. The moment that stood out the most for me was Gloria Steinem stating that if the world were just, Mankiller would have been elected President of the United States of America. It’s an especially painful statement to have to digest today.

Image: Anita, Luminato Festival

Director Freida Lee Mock’s documentary Anita (2013) is arguably the most urgent of the films in the series, urgent in the sense that if anyone is not familiar with Anita Hill’s story, now is the time to learn about her. A precursor to the women of the Me Too movement, Anita Hill, a law professor, made the decision to disclose her boss’s sexual harassment to the FBI after he was nominated to the Supreme Court by then-U.S. President George Bush. After Hill’s comments on her former boss’s behaviour were leaked to the press, she was forced to testify publicly about her experiences at his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Watching the room of all-male, all-white grandfatherly senators probe and attempt to discredit Hill is painful, angering, and all too-familiar. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Hill’s former boss, Clarence Thomas, manages to swiftly secure his seat on the Supreme Court—a position he holds to this day. Hill, in turn, must suffer the repercussions of coming out with her story—repercussions ranging from death threats to a 2010 voice mail from Thomas’s wife asking that Hill apologize for her 1991 testimony. Anita however ends on an encouraging note. The public hearing spurred action and anger from female politicians and lawyers. Hill has been actively speaking on the issue of sexual harassment, systemic sexism, and equality since that time. And in late 2017, she was selected to lead the charge against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry on the newly-formed Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace.

Image: Bhutto, Luminato Festival

Bhutto (2010), directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara, offers a primer on the political history of Pakistan and its two-time Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto—the first woman elected to head a primarily Muslim nation. The Bhutto family are commonly referred to as the Kennedy family equivalent of Pakistan, and the film documents the family’s fall after a 1977 military coup and Benazir Bhutto’s subsequent entry into politics. As Prime Minister, Bhutto was known for advocating for women’s rights in Pakistan, though she was also plagued by accusations of corruption. Bhutto’s assassination, in 2007, has lent her martyr status and even greater popularity outside of her nation. This documentary offers background and context to better understand her significance beyond just her headline-grabbing death.

Image: Madonna - Truth or Dare, Luminato Festival

One year before Anita Hill testified in the Clarence Thomas hearings, Madonna embarked on her international “Blonde Ambition” concert tour. The resulting tour documentary, Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), was directed by Alek Keshishian. While arguably the “lightest” of the documentaries in the series—audience members in the theatre sang along to “Express Yourself” and danced in their seats—this film proved the most inspiring to me. In the two-hour Truth or Dare we are presented with the portrait of a wholly uncompromising woman. Witty, irreverent, a self-proclaimed “mother” to her troupe of dancers, Madonna is presented in a highly intimate “behind-the-scenes” way that makes it impossible not to admire her. A highlight is her complete disregard for the Toronto Police Department’s threats of arrest if she performs masturbatory-like motions during her dance routine to “Like a Virgin” during her SkyDome concert. Madonna states that she’s an artist and will not be censored. Her confidence in her mission to push boundaries and challenge her audience is exciting, and it is inspiring, even when watching transgressions that are now 28 years old.

Image: !Women: Art Revolution, Luminato Festival

!Women: Art Revolution (2010) is a documentary made by Lynn Hershman Lesson tracing the rise of feminist art and consisting in large part of her interviews—shot over 40 years—with various artists and art-community members. The documentary opens with the director asking passersby outside the Whitney Museum of American Art whether they can name three female artists. The frightening fact is that no one can. Frida Kahlo seems to be a top contender, but after that, silence. The documentary begins with the 1960s Civil Rights and anti-war movements and the creation of the Women Artists in Revolution group whose aim is overturning the male dominance of art history. Another group, perhaps the most widely known members of the feminist art movement, is the Guerrilla Girls, with their gorilla masks and tongue-in-cheek poster slogans, attacking the entrenched male centrism of the art world and their over-representation in major art galleries. Hershman Lesson’s documentary serves as a comforting reminder that the battle for equality in the art world has been raging for some time. A few months ago, when I visited the Whitney, I saw that its exhibit “An Incomplete History of Protest” had devoted ample room to the Guerrilla Girls’ posters, the very posters that criticised the Whitney’s own underrepresentation of women. Things seemed to have come full-circle.

Image: Public Speaking, Luminato Festival

Martin Scorsese’s 2010 documentary Public Speaking presents a portrait of cultural critic and writer Fran Lebowitz through a series of interviews from inside a West Village bar, shots of Lebowitz wandering through Manhattan, and—appropriately—shots of her public speaking engagements. Lebowitz is constantly “on”—delivering her cranky, skeptical, and funny commentary, an incorrigible critic and glosser of the world around her. This is perhaps the best “cool-down” for the Game Changers series. Lebowitz, while presenting as somewhat curmudgeonly is also entertaining and self-contented in her state. She is an interesting and outspoken figure in no way abiding by social conventions.

If you missed the series in June, it’s easy to recreate the experience by borrowing the documentaries from a public library or an online source. A feeling of hope, of possibility, will wash over you when you’re done.

Tags: media savvy

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