Category Archives: Documentary

The American Nurse (Dir: Carolyn Jones, 2014)

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Format: ,
Running Time: 79 min

The American Nurse

The American Nurse: Healing America is an American documentary directed by Carolyn Jones as part of a larger project covering American nurses. The American Nurse project, started in 2011, is a collection of photographs, short video interviews, and this film. The purpose of the project is to “meet nurses all across the country and hear their stories and give them a voice”, according to Jones. The collection of short interviews (most are about 1 minute long) and the book were both published in 2012, with the film the final chapter of the project.

The film looks into the day to day activities of 5 American nurses: Jason Short, Sister Stephen, Brian McMillion, Tonia Faust, and Naomi Cross. The nurses all work in very different environments ranging from the middle of nowhere in the Appalachians to a hospital in Baltimore, MD. Jones shows us the private and public lives of these nurses in an effort to give them more of a voice when a lot of the times these nurses come in and out of patients room without sharing much of their lives. Jones, who begins the film explaining that at first she thought nurses were just nurses until she had breast cancer, isn’t a main character in the documentary, choosing instead to focus the attention of the film onto the nurses. It’s rare to hear her voice at all. The documentary takes us through the joys and pains of being a nurse, and is a great look into a world that many of us are not aware of. Instead of being simply medical professionals who do their job robotically with no emotion, The American Nurse shows us that nurses are humans like everyone else, and that they feel for their patients as anyone else.

American Nurses is a great tribute to the men and women who work hard everyday to help their patients through difficult times. Jones’ film is a must watch for anyone interested in hearing about nurses in the United States.

NYT Review:

Hollywood Reporter Review:


Gideon’s Army

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 95 min

Gideon’s Army (2013) directed by Dawn Porter documents the personal and professional lives of three public defenders working for the criminal court systems in Georgia and Mississippi. Toggling back-and-forth between each of their lives and each their trials, the documentary captures the emotional hardship attendant upon those who unflinchingly and devotedly defense the otherwise defenseless. The documentary follows multiple trials defended each by Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick. In addition to documenting the lives of clients as they prepare for trial – in home, in jail, or in offices – Gideon’s Army captures in intimate detail the struggle of these public defenders as they manage loans, relationships, children, and ultimately the burden of representing clients on trial for life-long prison sentences.

Indeed, much of the focus of the movie regards how these public defenders cope with burden of being a public defender. At one point, Alexander recounts a case in which her client was plotting to kill her if she did not obtain a not guilty verdict. In many ways, the documentary is about how these public defenders maintain despite strong reasons for quitting: low pay, long hours, stress, and dejection. The film attributes professional retention to the Southern Public Defender Training Center, an organization that now goes by the name of Gideon’s Promise, of which provides numerous services including support groups for public defenders to share their struggle and re-imagine their commitment. The name of the organization and the name of the documentary both reference the 1963 supreme court case Gideon v. Wainwright in which it was deemed that stares are required under the 14th amendment to provide council in criminal cases for defendants unable to pay for their own attorneys. The name of the film and the organization work not only to commemorate this case, but also to enjoin public defenders in a heroic community of individuals who defend those highly vulnerable in the justice system.

Throughout the documentary, the structural disincentives of working as a public defender and the painful failings of the justice system are clear. There is no doubt that the strength of public defenders stems from a sense of personal and communal commitment to the defense of the defenseless. In many ways, this documentary offers a form of recognition for those who work irregardless of public recognition.


She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 92 min

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014), Dir. Mary Dore

Synopsis: Dore’s film covers a huge range of issues in the rise of the women’s movement, mostly between 1966 (beginning a few years back with the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique) and 1971. The documentary covers a range of issues the women’s liberation movement focused on, from abortion to birth control to equal pay to employment opportunities to self-defense and rape, and locates the beginning of the movement in the political energy of the Civil Rights, antiwar, and Black Power movements of the 1960s. The film also emphasizes the huge number of everyday, ordinary women who worked together to begin the movement, underscoring the role of consciousness-raising groups and collective organization rather than focusing on just a few women.

Formally, the film cuts often between interviews — always brief, interesting and relevant — and footage of past protests, speeches, and events, usually featuring the women interviewed. This effort to weave together interviews and past footage makes the film much more engaging than lengthy interviews or tape might be. SBWSA‘s interviews also lend a pleasing affective texture to the film, emphasizing the sense of women involved in the movement that it was long overdue as well as the catharsis and necessary support of consciousness-raising groups and a new (for white women, at least) understanding of the personal as political.

The film touches briefly on certain schisms within the women’s movement and towards the end focuses on the rollback of certain feminist gains such as abortion rights, but overall emphasizes the movement’s unity and triumphs — at the cost, perhaps, of truly delving into the painful and bitter exclusion of and alienation felt by Black women, for instance, from the feminist movement (the issue of lesbianism is given more time, but the Combahee River Collective’s statement and movement, though it emerges a few years past the film’s purview, would be an invaluable addition to the film — along with a few more minutes’ analysis of lesbian separatism, rather than what the documentary does, which is conclude that lesbianism was added and treated as important almost immediately by feminism after the Lavender Menace raised the issue). An unfortunate perpetuation of the universalism of the term “women” pervades the documentary, which, with a few notable exceptions in Fran Beal and Linda Burnham, focuses its interviews mostly on white women (a striking contrast with the footage and images from the past, which clearly show many Black women and other women of color involved in the organizing and activism taking place). The film could have made interesting connections between the ways in which certain spaces within the women’s movement would not permit the entrance of male infant children and modern day trans exclusion, or touched upon any number of issues which are brought up in the film but remain salient for the women’s movement (antifeminism from women, rape culture, etc.) but instead strikes a joyful and positive tone throughout. This is certainly in service of a noble goal of emphasizing the power of collective organizing, but misses the force which acknowledging difference and difficulty can generate.

Suggested uses: There is nothing new here — in fact, there is a lot missing — for those who have taken even an introductory Gender & Sexuality Studies class or studied the rise of feminism. Its most appropriate use might therefore be in high-school US history or possibly health classrooms, or as an engaging way in which to begin to study feminism’s development, though obviously much more research should still be done.

Bibliographic items: “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Written by the group of lesbian radical feminists calling themselves the Lavender Menace and responding to the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement. The manifesto was passed out as part of a demonstration at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City in 1970 (which did not feature any openly lesbian women). Often cited as a major moment and text in second-wave feminism, perhaps the foundational document for lesbian feminism. The next year, delegates at the 1971 National Organization of Women’s national conference declared lesbian rights a key concern for feminism.

The Combahee River Collective Statement and the anthology Words of Fire, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, both of which provide more nuanced looks than the documentary at Black women’s role in women’s liberation.

The Kickstarter campaign for the film contains interesting information about the filmmaking process and creators’ purposes.

Miss Representation

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 85 min

Miss Representation, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a documentary that focuses on the media representation of women and the effect this has on women in society. The main points of the documentary comment on the lack of authentic representation of women in films, TV shows, political offices, news outlets, and other aspects of popular culture mass media consumption that lead to harmful psychological issues for young girls, sustaining this system of oppression. The documentary looks at historical events as well as current events of the disenfranchisement of women in America. It uses interviews with various women of power or those who have been affected by the media misrepresentation, statistic facts about the skewed society we live in, and direct examples from various media sources of harmful and misogynistic portrayals of women or men talking about women. The documentary ends with ways in which we as a society can deny the influences of huge media conglomerates, such as through the political power of  voting and purchasing power that we as consumers have.

FtF: Female to Femme, Directed by Kami Chisholm and Elizabeth Stark (San Francisco, CA: Frameline, 2006), 48 mins

FtF: Female to Femme provides an intimate look into the community created by femme lesbian women in California in the early 2000s, and the struggles these women face as their sexuality, gender expression, body image, and various other identities clash with the queer community and society as a whole. Kami Chisholm and Elizabeth Stark explore the multifaceted nature of femme lesbians’ feelings of alienation and their search for comfort with themselves and within their communities. The documentary takes us into the private spaces of FtF support groups, burlesque shows and performers, and interviews with self-identified femme women of varying ages and racial identities in order to explore what the transition from female to femme really means, how it feels, and what it entails.

The film is an attempt to explore a very specific subset of the queer community, but it deals with aspects of transitioning and discrimination that, in the present day, come off as partially ignorant of the ways in which privilege functions in society at large: namely, the transitioning of women from “butch” to “femme” seems as if it would also be a transition from going against society’s expectations to going along with them, from being less privileged in society to more privileged. However, the film does an excellent job of dealing with these issues as they relate to personal experience and feeling rather than the larger social implications of transitioning from female to femme. It is the women’s experiences with this transition that are at the center of this film, rather than other people’s perceptions of or societal implications of “femme”.


Title: Maquilapolis


Directors: Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre

Released in 2006, Maquilapolis details the struggles of women working for $11 per day in factories on the US-Mexico border. The film employs participatory techniques to give its subjects, the women working in the factories, their own voice in the film; Funari and De La Torre taught the workers how to use video cameras and gave them camcorder to record their experiences in the factories and in their neighborhoods. The film exposes the insidious aspects of globalization and shows how these factories exploit their workers and destroy the environment. In particular it shows how the factories disrupt the ecology of the neighborhoods they move into; examples include the stream becoming too polluted to swim in and poor installation of electrical wires leading to children being electrocuted. The film also acts in the performative mode, using choreographed scenes and audio layering to show how

Despite these awful conditions, Maquilapolis details these women organizing to attempt to limit the power of the factories in their communities and achieve fairer wages. The participatory mode of the film situates the filmmakers with the factory workers in the struggle against the corporations, and in this way the film itself acts as both a document of the struggle and an ethical engagement with exploitative economic conditions.

Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women (1989)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 30 min


Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women is a documentary tribute to the lives of jazz musicians Ernestine “Tiny” Davis and Ruby Lucas, including their forty year romantic partnership.  The ladies’ careers were so prolific that after a few minutes, they begin to sound like myths.  Tiny started her own all-female jazz band and travelled around the country playing before she turned 30.  Ruby was on Louis Armstrong’s very good side, and played at least three different instruments in countless bands (including Tiny’s).  Together, they cultivated “Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot”, a queer club in Chicago; one of few safe spaces for queer people at that time in the city.  These ladies have lived well and authentically, and director Greta Schiller doesn’t skimp on their accomplishments.

But Hell Divin’ Women is more than jazz history and lively vintage footage. It weaves the public with the private beautifully, featuring rare musical recordings, home videos, off-the-cuff interviews with the couple, publicity photos, and narrative poetry by Cheryl Clarke.  The result is a nostalgic and intimately fresh approach to historical documentary with some good laughs too. Ruby and Tiny are hilarious.  They know who they are; it seems like Greta Schiller does, too.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of scholarly materials on the film, but I personally found the film’s references to 1950s queer Chicago subculture fascinating, such as the couple’s famous club in the South Side. This Chicago Encyclopedia entry details more about the highly intersectional history of gays and lesbians in the city.

The third and fourth paragraphs relate specifically to the black gay and lesbian community that formed the South Side during the Great Migration, which Tiny and Ruby largely contributed to.  Strangely, their bar is not mentioned.

Goddag, mit navn er Lesbisk (Hello, my name is Lesbian) (2009)

Directed by Iben Haahr Andersen and Mina Grooss. Denmark, 2009. 52 mins.

This 52-minute documentary discusses the experiences of lesbian women and couples in Denmark. The film contains interviews with each of its subjects wherein they discuss everything from social perceptions of lesbianism in the 1950’s to the sexual liberation of Denmark as a whole to sex toys. The documentary is narrowly focused on lesbians–it does not discuss bisexuals or other queer women. Goddag, mit navn er Lesbisk contains a considerable amount of nudity and sexual content. Almost all of the couples interviewed in the film neatly fit into the stereotypical butch/femme dichotomy that codes lesbianism as heteronormative, though some of the couples acknowledge this stringent categorization as problematic in queer communities and society as a whole. The documentary spends a long time discussing misandrist radical feminist movements and phallophobic lesbian collectives without necessarily addressing that both of these groups make up very small, if at times loud, extremist sectors of the lesbian community. Stylistically, the film includes surrealist animated segments that function as transitions between interviews and subject matter and metaphorical representations of what the voiceover is saying. Thirty-seven minutes into the film, the matter of public perception of lesbian couples is discussed. This issue is key in queer female communities; many female/female relationships are perceived through hetero-lens as strong female friendships when in reality these are romantic and/or sexual relationships.

Related article:
Especially sections 6 & 7 on hetero-, homo-, and bisexuality, gender and transgenderism.

Screenshot from the film, including an animation to represent gender roles: goddagmitnavnerlesbisk
(source:, screenshot by Kemmer Cope)

The World Before Her (2012)

Written and Directed by Nisha Pahuja
Run Time: 90 minutes

“There are two Indias” Sabira Merchant, a diction coach for the Miss India beauty pageant tells us.

In 1996, India hosted Miss World, causing masive backlash and numerous protests from both extreme-right wing Hindu nationalist groups and feminist organizations. Since then, beauty pageants have been increasingly vilified by right wing organizations. The World Before Her juxtaposes the 2011 Miss India beauty pageant with training in Durga Vahini – a camp run by the women’s wing of a right wing Hindu organization to make women between 15 and 35 “warrior goddesses”, often labelled a terrorist camp, or the ‘hindu Taliban.’

Pahuja shows us these two sides without ever taking one herself – she shows us strong women on both convinced what they are doing is right. The fundamentalist talks about how the models are destroying Indian culture and presenting themselves as slabs of meat for men and is proud of how strong she’s gotten while teaching little girls how to shoot and claiming she’d kill anyone who threatened her religion. The model talk about how she stands for freedom, progress and choice then says her instant reaction if she found out her son is gay would be to slap him.

And they all have their doubts too. In a particularly poignant moment, we see the fundamentalist we follow most closely cry at her father’s insistence she must marry. The Miss India contestants are taken to a beach and shrouded in a robe with holes cut out for their eyes that covers everything but their legs because the man in charge says he wants to see “just sexy legs”. We see a contestant who had previously claimed that is wasn’t “just physical beauty” being judged wonder if it’s worth the humiliation.

But their worlds are not entirely different. We see model and fundamentalist alike talk about how grateful they are to their parents for creating them, giving birth to them despite their being girls. The fundamentalist sees this as justification for her father hitting her. The models see it as reasons why they have to win and make them proud.

Essentially, the documentary takes a non-judgmental view at two very separate realities for Indian women today. It is important to keep in mind that they are pretty end-of-spectrum examples and in reality most Indian women have a reality somewhere in between, but the documentary does an excellent job of taking two extremes and still dealing with them in a careful, nuanced manner.

Further Reading: Bidwai, Praful. “Confronting the Reality of Hindutva Terrorism”. Economic and Political Weekly 43.47 (2008): 10–13. Web…

against a trans narrative (Dir: Jules Rosskam, 2008)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 61 min

Still featuring Jules Rosskam (filmmaker) and his girlfriend in a confessional-style scene


Through reenactments, interviews, and both informal and structured conversations, filmmaker and subject Jules Rosskam deconstructs the idea of a singular trans narrative. His reflexive film acts more as an intersectional conversation and discussion instigator than as a traditional story-telling documentary. The scenes in the film, which vary in type from confessionals to individual/group interviews to reenactments to dinner table conversations to “behind the scenes” footage, not only respectively contain challenging and controversial conversation, but also engage in conversation with each other, working cohesively to deconstruct the idea of one cohesive trans experience.

Rosskam, often using his own experiences, aptly addresses some of the most pressing, yet coded and hidden topics of FTM trans experiences both through reenactments and his own narrative. These topics include navigating the healthcare system as a transperson, transitioning while in a relationship, evolution from one part of the queer community to another, personal physical comfort in contrast with social perceptions, and constructions of both feminism and masculinity. While representing several experiences of FTM folks and those who surround them, the film also seeks express the importance of individual experiences and the multifaceted and varying aspects of physical and social gender transition.

The film also captures sociopolitical stances of a time around 2008 through its subject’s statements. This was timestamp was particularly noticeable in a conversation about feminism; a group of men are prompted to discuss feminism, and one states, “I wouldn’t go out and say I’m a feminist… I identify as a feminist but I don’t know if that’s a thing I should say.” Rosskam, who certainly engages with more current ideas about feminism and gender, introduces ideas that are just now (in 2015) starting to enter more mainstream vocabulary. Most prevalently are the concepts of passing and an idealized narrative; “the idealized narrative of what it means to be trans has become so pervasive that ultimately we’re all in process to get to a certain endpoint, and that endpoint is to be passable and read as a man or a woman in a world. And then if you’re not passable and read as a man or woman in this world, then clearly you haven’t finished yet.” Rosskam further challenges the binary that sits at the core of the idealized narrative, using footage of himself talking to his girlfriend about his social transition: “I’m afraid you’re going to lump me in with men – and I don’t see myself that way, I don’t identify myself that way.” Furthermore, Rosskam directly confronts the intersectionality that is too often ignored when discussing trans issues and narratives by asking his subjects “how do you think that your race and class impact your transition?” and related questions.

While Rosskam’s film is not a comprehensive view of trans lives, it offers a glance at many pivotal (and often silenced) issues. His involvement in the film (which ranges from confessional footage of himself, to vlogs with his girlfriend, to him appearing on screen to sync sound with audio) gives a humble tone of reflexivity and determination for self growth within an ever-expanding, intersectional, and complicated community that exists within a world designed to work against exactly the identities fostered in his community.

Related Subjects: Gender Studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Studies, Health Studies, Identity Politics

Critic Responses:

“Employing roundtable discussions, confessional on-camera monologues, acted-out skits, rehearsals of the acted-out skits, and rather fine rap poetry, the film can be applauded as an important tool for classroom use, but as a finished product for mass appreciation, Against is too haphazard, too unstructured, too insular. It’s a slightly amateurish paean to academic solipsism broken up by numerous episodes of power.”

Brandon Judell, CultureCatch

“It is inarguable that documentary is meant to create a motion, but “Against a Trans Narrative” does more than this. It creates a conversation, which is the first step towards understanding. Watching films such as these will encourage people to push for an open dialogue about how to make not only Colgate, but society more accepting.”

Reyna LaRiccia, Colgate Maroon-News

Bibliographic items:

Raun, Tobias. “Out Online: Trans Representation and community building on YouTube.” Roskilde University.

Rosskam, Jules. “The ties that bind are fragile and often imaginary: Community, identity politics, and the limits of representation.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory.

William, Gabe. “How I knew I was Trans: My Story and the Trans Narrative.” Youtube.