The Noisy Water Review

Making Films Politically: Depicting Women in Documentary

Rowan McDowell Thompson

“There is a need to make films politically as opposed to making political films.”
-Trinh T. Minh-ha

More documentaries are being created now than ever before. In the British documentary heyday of the 1930’s and 40’s, more than 30 films were made per year; now that many are produced each month (Ellis). Additionally, documentaries are gaining greater viewership and acclaim. Documentaries previously have been primarily watched by people already invested in a film’s subject matter, but more and more viewers are being introduced to topics by documentaries that just intrigue them. Over time, the power of documentaries is growing because filmmakers are no longer just preaching to the choir, but proposing new ideas to greater audiences. And following the events of September 11, 2001, the documentary genre has shifted focus towards political topics rather than the stories of individuals (Ganahl). However, documentarian Amanda Micheli has continued to make films about individual people’s lives. The hallmark of her work is a commitment to sharing the perspectives of women in particular. Mainstream cinematic media, by contrast, rarely represents the experiences of real women. But as the viewership of documentaries grows it is vital that representation of subjects grows as well. Micheli’s films have significantly positive impacts on real life because they do justice to their subjects in ways that many fiction films do not and cannot. By representing women’s stories realistically, telling the stories of marginalized people, and showing them in a sympathetic light, Micheli is combating the cultural narratives of passive, bland, and invisible women and inspiring hope and respect.

The documentary genre’s commitment and confinement to truth makes it ideal for portraying the lives of women (Ellis). Hollywood offers audiences almost exclusively stories of the privileged and when it makes exceptions they tend to be caricatures rather than realistic portrayals (Siddiquee). To be blunt, in the majority of mainstream narrative cinema, marginalized people are fictionalized distortions catering to the white, affluent, straight male audience.

Documentaries don’t have the opportunity to misrepresent marginalized communities in the same way as mainstream narrative films because they are “derived from and limited to actuality” (Ellis). However, the genre still disproportionately tells the stories of the privileged. Recently, an alternative to the now-classic Bechdel Test was proposed based on the character Mako Mori from Pacific Rim. The Mako Mori Test asks whether there is at least one female character that gets her own storyline which isn’t just a support for a male character’s plot arc (Romano). Micheli’s films all pass the proposed Mako Mori Test. Moreover, their representations of low-income communities, communities of color, and women are true to life. As another documentarian, Pratibha Parmar, reflected, “you have to be very committed to women and changing women’s lives to do… this kind of work” (Redding). The creation of each film requires enormous effort not only in distribution and scrounging together funds but also in expressing adequately the truth of the subjects’ lives.

In the commentary track for Double Dare, a film about the careers and mentoring relationship of two stuntwomen, Micheli discusses the difficulty of gaining access to the sets where one of the subjects, Jeannie Epper, was working during the filming of the documentary. Ultimately, footage of only one of Epper’s jobs was included. Despite challenges, Micheli consistently seeks the most accurate representation possible of the individuals documented in her films. Her film The Save, a short about the coach of a soccer team for at-risk youth, touches on such multifaceted and painful issues as the gang violence perpetrated by many of the players. In La Corona, which documents a beauty pageant held in a women’s prison, the camera similarly takes a warts and all perspective when it lingers on the tattoos of the inmates. A swastika tattoo in particular does not paint the most sympathetic picture nor does the inclusion of their convictions and mug shots. But by representing each contestant in the beauty pageant as the imperfect people they are, Micheli depicts the complexity of the real women she’s portraying.

That complexity is what sets her documentaries apart. In mainstream narrative cinema, women’s insecurities, economic hardships, queer romances, and physical aptitudes tend to be swept under the rug or harmfully overemphasized. Not so with Micheli’s films. Double Dare and La Corona both specifically address the pressure placed on women to conform to cultural beauty standards. In Double Dare, Jeannie Epper even goes to see a plastic surgeon to consider liposuction so that she can remain competitive in her line of work. Similarly, La Corona and The Save explore the financial struggles faced by the films’ subjects and their communities. Gina Castañeda’s impoverished upbringing is mentioned in The Save to illuminate her investment in at-risk youth. Angela Valoyes talks about how her relationship with her girlfriend impacted her outlook on life in La Corona and frequently throughout the film the viewer is reminded of the significance of that relationship. Additionally, Just for the Ride, Double Dare, La Corona, and The Save all center on women who excel in some physical area, be it riding broncos, dancing, performing stunts, or playing soccer. In this way, Micheli gives audiences truly representative depictions of women’s lives above and beyond the narrow image generally offered by media.

Documentarian Allie Light wrote about herself that she is “interested in [her] own life, so [she’s] also interested in the lives of others” (Redding). Micheli’s experience as a professional rugby player may inform her interest in women in active roles. It’s significant that Micheli’s background as an athlete inform her filmmaking decisions because women are so infrequently depicted in active roles. The women in Micheli’s films aren’t simply scenery; they are participants, competitors, and professionals. Her choices as a director help her viewers see this. One of the opening shots of Double Dare has prominent stuntwoman Zoë Bell flying toward the camera. The low angle shots of the contestants on the stage in La Corona suggest the degree to which these women are admired and looked up to. Gina Castañeda is in the middle of the action coaching her team and switching fluidly between English and Spanish in The Save. Shots such as these promote a positive image of women as competent, invested, and participatory.

Often sympathy for female characters in narrative storytelling is drawn from the damsel in distress trope. This stereotype is born of the idea that women in stories exist solely to add intrigue to male plotlines. The women in Micheli’s films, however, are depicted sympathetically without relying on vulnerability as a crutch. Gina Castañeda in The Save, Zoë Bell in Double Dare, and several contestants in La Corona cry during interviews, but that is not the sole reason that audiences connect with these women. The struggles each have faced and the triumphs they experience are what draw the viewers to the subjects. The game bracket used in The Save involves the audience in the effort toward the Championship game for Castañeda’s soccer team. When an inmate in La Corona discusses life in the prison after the Beauty Contest, the camera zooms in on a pail of garbage underscoring the hardships of their everyday existence. Zoë Bell plunges downward onto her shoulder over and over in one scene of Double Dare until she gestures toward her arm and says, “It’s dead.” Her toughness and unrelenting commitment to doing her job fosters deeper investment for the viewers in her life and career. Micheli cultivates understanding, respect, and empathy for her subjects in this way.

The kind of earnest, compassionate filmmaking Micheli’s work exemplifies is crucial to building a more just society. Movies shape the way their audiences view the world (Giroux). One way communities are normalized or alienated is through the availability of accurate representation or lack thereof. Especially as documentaries gain greater influence over media, who is depicted and how shapes the narratives of marginalized communities in the world off the silver screen. By representing these individuals and communities accurately and sympathetically filmmakers are challenging toxic cultural narratives and sustaining hope for a better world.

Works Cited

Campos, Eric. "Amanda Micheli Double Dares You." Film Threat. Film Threat, 21 Apr. 2005. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

Double Dare. Dir. Amanda Micheli. Perf. Jeannie Epper and Zoë Bell. 2004. Capital Entertainment Enterprises, 2004. DVD.

Ellis, Jack C., and Betsy A. McLane. A New History of Documentary Film. New York: Continuum, 2005. Print.

Ganahl, Jane. "Busting Gender Roles, What a Feat!" San Francisco Chronicle [San Francisco, Calif.] 17 Apr. 2005, Final Edition ed.: M2. Print.

Giroux, Henry A. "Disney, Militarization and the National Security State After 9/11." Truthout. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 23 Aug. 2011. Web. 08 June 2014.

Hurd, Mary G. Women Directors and Their Films. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007. Print.

Just for the Ride. Dir. Amanda Micheli. Perf. Fern Sawyer and Jan Youren. 1995. Runaway Films, DVD.

La Corona. Dir. Amanda Micheli. Perf. Angela Valoyes. 2008. Runaway Films, 2008. DVD.

Micheli, Amanda, Zoë Bell, and Jeannie Epper. Audio Commentary. Double Dare. Dir. Amanda Micheli. Perf. Jeannie Epper and Zoë Bell. 2004. Capital Entertainment Enterprises

Minh-ha, Trinh T. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Rascaroli, Laura. Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film. London: Wallflower, 2009. Print.

Redding, Judith M.., and Victoria A.. Brownworth. Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors. Seattle: Seal, 1997. Print.

Romano, Aja. "The Mako Mori Test: 'Pacific Rim' Inspires a Bechdel Test Alternative." The Daily Dot. N.p., 18 Aug. 2013. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

Siddiquee, Imran. "Why Sister Act is One of the Most Important Movies Ever Made." The Representation Project. The Representation Project, 6 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

The Save. Dir. Amanda Micheli. Perf. Gina Castañeda. 2011. Runaway Films. Online.

Weibrecht, Isabella, John Boorman, and Walter Donohue. Women Film-makers on Film-making. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. Print.

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