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A feminist critique of documentary film

kwheeler's picture

Intro to Critical Feminist Studies: Web-paper 3

As with practically every other field in academia, it its early years documentary film was characterized by an alarming lack of women producers and directors as well as very few documentaries about issues concerning women. This may be attributed in part to the dominating forms of documentary in the early 1970s, direct cinema and cinema verité, which were praised for their objectivity and ability to capture reality. At a time when documentary film movement was gaining momentum, feminist writing on film was typified by a critique of the depiction of women in the dominant cinema of the time. Therefore, for the most part feminist film makers preferred alternative film methods to mainstream film and documentary. In addition, the surge in literature on feminist film is indicative of the arrival of cheap and lightweight 16mm film and video equipment, which made the arena of filmmaking infinitely more accessible than before; with these inventions came a flux of material created by, for, and about women.

It is precisely the proclaimed “realism” that direct cinema and cinema verité were so popular for that fueled the feminist critique of these dominant forms of documentary. In 1973 Claire Johnston published her essay, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema” in which she offers her critique and then outlines her recommendations for the formation of an alternative feminist film movement. Johnston proclaimed that throughout the history women have been largely absent in films; the so-called women we see are merely a man’s depiction of a woman, that are actually one-dimensional characters that bear no resemblance to any real women, “Within a sexist ideology and a male-dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for man… despite the enormous emphasis placed on woman as spectacle in the cinema, woman as woman is largely absent,” (Johnston 33). It follows then, that because all film is an art-form through which the producer intentionally or unintentionally conveys their ideology that any claim of objectivity in film must be treated with suspicion. Johnston staunchly criticizes the claim that any form of film could be considered an accurate representation of reality, “The tools and techniques of cinema themselves, as part of reality, are an expression of the prevailing ideology: they are not neutral, as many ‘revolutionary’ film-makers appear to believe” (Johnston 36). Johnston therefore concludes that the idea of non-intervention is pure mystification and that the only “reality” that is captured in documentary is the reality of the dominant ideology of the film maker.

In Sylvia Harvey’s introduction to “The Song of the Shirt” she offers another critique of realist film. She prefers a modernist approach to film, in other words an approach that understands that any attempt at to represent part of the world is still only ever a representation and that calls attention to the “means of representation employed” (Harvey 46). The problem with realism lies, according to Harvey, in its use of sources which can never be unbiased. Furthermore, when relying on histories there are the questions of who gets to write history and how do they do it? We must be cautioned against the use of histories and proclaimed truths because they are always subjective and often constructed according to dominant ideologies of the time. This is reticent of our class discussion and readings of Sosnoski who cautions us against the falsifiability and competitiveness that dominate the academic and professional worlds; the world is full of subjectivities there exist many standards for correctness. Harvey does, however, caution us of the dangers of falling into a “total relativism”, the idea that we can never know the world and that we are stuck in our eternal representations that will never truly know the world they seek to represent. What is to be gained from modernism, however, is the realization that “certain people claim the right to produce representations of the world and to have their particular representations or accounts of the world dominant” (48 Harvey).

Julia Lesage disagrees with Johnston and Harvey’s critique of direct cinema and other “realist” methods. She emphasizes how important it was for women making documentaries to use traditional, realist documentary structure for their films to gain credibility and accessibility, she says “they saw making these films as an urgent public act and wished to… bring feminist analysis to many women it might otherwise never reach” (Lesage 15). It would seem that in her opinion the importance of women and the feminist movement gaining visibility surpassed the importance in the style and method in the production the film. Lesage also argues that the nature of feminist cinema verité is distinct from more mainstream examples for a number of reasons, primarily because there exists a relationship of trust and collaboration between the woman film-maker and the woman subject. Because of the trust that exists between both parties, there is no danger of misrepresentation or manipulation of the content of the film to serve ulterior motives. She goes further to say that the power hierarchy that exists in so many film-maker/subject situations is not present in these forms of feminist film because of this collaboration and their shared goal in letting women’s voices be heard and speaking out against the patriarchy.

Indeed, what the feminist version of cinema verité seems to share with more mainstream forms is the reliance on interviews, what Charlotte Brunsdon calls the “women-talking” tradition of feminist film making. Contradictory to the view that the style of the documentary affects the meaning, Lesage seems to believe that it is the overall message that the documentary is trying to convey that dictates the approach used by the producer, “both the exigencies and forms of organization of an ongoing political movement can affect the aesthetics of documentary film” (Lesage 22). Central to the feminist film movement is the desire to share the experience of women so people can begin to understand the individual predicaments of these women as part of a wider social subordination, Lesage argues that the best way for feminist film-makers to do this was through the method of cinema verité.

In class we first encountered the self/other dichotomy with Simone de Beauvoir’s introduction to The Second Sex, in which she presents a view of society in which she explains the practically universal subordination of women as a result of their “othering” by the male “self”. Men see themselves as normal and natural whereas women are the peculiarities that exist only in relation to men; it is on this ideology that our society has been built and the result has been a history-long subjugation which has led women to believe that this subjugation is natural or merited, “a difficult matter for man to realize the extreme importance of social discriminations which seem outwardly insignificant but which produce in woman moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to spring from her original nature” (de Beauvoir).

In her pioneering article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey furthers the discussion about women being the “other” in the context of film, in which more often than not we see the objectification of women. This action of objectifying and fetishizing women is the result of an attempt to distract the male-spectator from the castration-threat that women represent. Thus, she sees the action of being a film-spectator as one of scopophilia, or “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey 60), and narcissism because he is watching an image of his like “gaining control and possession of the woman within the diegesis” (Mulvey 64). The only way we can achieve any form of reality is with the freeing of the “look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics and passionate detachment” (Mulvey 69). This destroys the satisfaction that comes with the voyeurism inherent in the scopophilic aspect of spectatorship. Though Mulvey’s article places emphasis on fiction film, her theories are certainly still applicable to documentary film which, as we have discussed, is also in many respects fictive because the spectators are viewing the subject of the film through the eyes and dominant ideologies of the producer. Therefore it would seem that documentary film will also benefit from the act of highlighting the “materiality in time and space” of the camera.

I believe Mulvey would agree with Johnston when she emphasizes importance of an interrogation of “the language of the cinema/the depiction of reality” (Johnston 37) in the future of documentary. Contrary to Lesage’s thoughts, Johnston emphasizes the need to do more than simply discuss the oppression of women in the text of the film, we need to challenge the depiction of reality and think seriously about who decides how the subject at hand is being represented. While it would seem that there exists no accurate way to represent reality through the medium of film, the closest we can get to truth is by explicitly revealing the context and situation in which our representations were formed.


Anne Dalke's picture

on the impossibility of representing truth


quite an impressive bibliography, and quite an impressive account of various feminist critiques of documentary film; I learned a lot from your review (for which many thanks!).

And (this won't surprise you) I also noted how absent you are from the account. What you have done here is survey--and it is an excellent survey of--a number of academic perspectives, and begin to place them in conversation with one another ("Lesage disagrees with Johnston and Harvey's critique"; "Mulvey furthers the discussion"; "Mulvey would agree with Johnston"; "contrary to Lesage's thoughts, Johnston emphasizes...").

What I want to challenge you to do is use these critics to think for yourself about the issues they have highlighted. The really big questions here seem to be about the possibility of representing truth:

  • "the only 'reality' that is captured in documentary is the reality of the dominant ideology of the film maker"
  • "any attempt to represent part of the world is still only ever a representation"
  • "we are stuck in our eternal representations that will never truly know the world they seek to represent"
  • "the only way we can achieve any form of reality is with the freeing of the look of the camera into its mateirality in time and space..."
  • "there exists no accurate way to represent reality."

So the question is, of course: what do you think? Is the end point of this catalogue the impossibility of doing documentary? The acknowlegement that all we have is stories--and that that needn't be a problem, but might actually be productive and pleasurable?

I wrote about this matters in an essay being published this fall, called "Why Words Arise--and Wherefore":

In a class session devoted to analysis of some poems...the conversation turned to the question of differences between "languages". If indeed there were highly unambiguous "languages" (mathematics, as well as, for example, computer programming languages), how come ordinary "language" was invariably highly "ambiguous" in interpretation (so much so that poetry was a legitimate art form and "literary criticism" a legitimate profession, with a method not dissimilar from "science")? What emerged from the discussion was the idea that ordinary language is not "supposed" to be unambiguous, because its primary function is not in fact to transmit from sender to receiver a particular, fully defined "story". Ordinary language is instead "designed" (by biological and cultural evolution) to perform a more sophisticated, bidirectional communication function. A story is told by the sender not to simply transmit the story but also, and equally importantly, to elicit information from/about the receiver, to find out what is otherwise unknowable by the sender: what ideas/thoughts/perspectives the receiver has about the general subject of the story. An unambiguous transmission/story calls for nothing from the receiver other than what the transmitter already knows; an ambiguous transmission/story links teller/transmitter and audience/receiver in a conversation (and, ideally, in a dialectic from which new things emerge) (Grobstein, Two Cultures; cf. also Norretranders).

The use-value of literary criticism, of the literature it interprets, and of language more generally, emerges in these transitional moments or interstitial places where negotiation is necessary--and where (therefore) meanings need to be constructed. We see this in the evolution of new words, new literary forms, new literary interpretations, and in re-making the meaning of old ones of each of these. Each time a new story is told, at each of these levels, it identifies--in ways that are unpredictable beforehand--other tales not yet articulated.

But that's MY take on the questions your essay raises. What is yours?


kwheeler's picture

Works Cited Brunsdon,

Works Cited

Brunsdon, Charlotte. "Introuduction to Part One." Films for Women. Ed. Charlotte Brunsdon. London: British Film Institute, 1986. 9-13.

Harvey, Sylvia. "An Introduction to 'the Song of the Shirt'" Films for Women. Ed. Charlotte Brunsdor. London: British Film Institute, 1986. 44-48.

Johnston, Claire. "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema." Feminist Film Theory. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York UP, 1999. 31-40.

Lesage, Julia. "Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film." Films for Women. Ed. Charlotte Brunsdon. London: British Film Institute, 1986. 14-23.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminist Film Theory. Ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New York UP, 1999. 58-69.

Waldman, Diane, and Janet Walker. "Introduction." Feminist and Documentary. Ed. Diane Waldman and Janet Walker. Minneapolia: University of Minnesota P, 1999. 1-27.