Category Archives: Documentary


Country of Origin:
Running Time: 40 min
Laurel and Stacie

Laurel and Stacie

Freeheld is about New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester and her partner Stacie. Laurel is dying of lung cancer and wants to transfer her benefits to Stacie. Counties can extend pension benefits to domestic partners and Laurel’s county has done so for men and their wives previously. Although New Jersey allows for gay and lesbian individuals to pass their benefits to their partners, counties get to decide case by case. All of her fellow officers support her and have made speeches to the court as well as during interviews. The freeholder director said he could not do anything because of the legislation. Another freeholder John Kelly believed that giving benefits to domestic partners “violated the sanctity of marriage.” Pressure continues to be put on the freeholder committee with trial hearings and other counties also changed their legislation to allow for giving benefits to partners that are not married. 

The documentary is a mixture of scenes from the trials, old photos of Laurel, and personal interviews. Wade’s depiction of the heartbreaking progression of Laurel’s illness is devoid of any background music, and instead focuses on the faces, emotions and the relationship between Laurel and Stacie. Wade’s depiction of their relationship is beautifully done as a lot of it belongs in the quiet moments between them, or their “ordinary” conversations. Along with depicting the relationship, Wade shows clips of several people either protesting or speaking about how Laurel should be allowed to transfer her benefits to Stacie. The documentary is both inspirational as well as somber, showing that there is yet much work to be done to achieve a society that is inclusive to all. 

Bibliographic Item:

Marshall, Peter D. “A Conversation with Cynthia Wade.” The Director’s Chair, Issue 85, April 25, 2008,


Country of Origin:
Running Time: 83 min


Trapped, written, directed, and produced by Dawn Porter, a 1988 Swarthmore graduate, follows abortion providers in the American South as their clinics are targeted by right-wing lawmakers. The documentary takes its name from the term “TRAP law,” which stands for targeted regulation of abortion providers. Examples of these regulations include requirements that doctors have permitting privileges at a local hospital, abortions be performed in surgical operating rooms, and certain medications must be available in clinics. In Trapped, Porter follows a doctor who describes how he has been turned away by the local hospitals explicitly because he performs abortions. A healthcare worker describes how patients receiving abortions often react with fear when led to the surgical operating room because the environment makes them believe that they will undergo surgery—which is not the case. A nurse describes how her clinic spends around $1,100 per month on required medications that no patient has ever needed; every month, the clinic throws away the expired, legally-required medicines.

Trapped succeeds in humanizing the doctors and nurses it focuses on. One doctor is asked if he is married; he responds that he would like to be, but he is married to his work. A nurse shares that her friends have begun encouraging her to retire, but she finds her work too important to walk away from. The intensity of the work abortion providers face is demonstrated but not fetishized in Trapped. One of the patients’ stories that is included near the end of the documentary is one of a 14-year-old girl who had been gangraped by four people. Another story is that of a 13-year-old girl who had been raped; this girl is turned away from the clinic in the documentary because the clinic was unable to find a legally required medical specialist who could meet with her. Neither of these patients are seen or heard from, but the effects of their stories on the doctors and nurses are seen. The nurse, describing how she had to turn away the 13-year-old, cries while she speaks. Trapped does not linger in this pain; after these scenes, there are calming shots of nature as the documentary transitions to a more upbeat ending sequence.

Near the end of the documentary, an anti-abortion group called Operation Save America demonstrate outside the clinic. They hold signs and shout at those entering the clinic. Others stand with signs in support of the clinic, and some wear yellow vests that designate pro-choice chaperones. A white anti-abortion protestor shouts at the black doctor that he is letting down his race by providing abortions to black women. In Trapped, examinations of race, class, and geography are included but not specifically highlighted. There is a comment near the beginning of the documentary about how the shutting down of clinics means that more people have to travel farther to receive safe abortions. Gender is also not a construct questioned by the documentary; there is no narration, and none of the text describes abortion in gendered terms. Different interviewees throughout Trapped describe abortion as a women’s issue.
Trapped tells the story of abortion’s legality. Archival material during the opening title sequence describes the impact of the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision; the first shot of original footage that comes after this sequence is dated to 2013, forty years after the landmark case. The effects of TRAP laws on abortion clinics and workers and their efforts to fight back are the focus of the documentary. The documentary ends with two victories—one clinic is able to remain open as the state Department of Health decides to not fight a lawsuit, and clinics across Texas are able to remain open as the Supreme Court places a stay on Texas House Bill 2. The relief felt is temporary, though; abortion is an area of healthcare that is shown to be under constant threat of being regulated out of existence. Trapped situates itself as a documentary about a slice of time in an ongoing battle.


This is a synopsis and review of Trapped published in the Catholic magazine Conscience. Trapped demonstrates the Christianity of its characters; Dr. Parker discusses his Christian upbringing and dedication to his work, and pro-choice activists pray together before Operation Save America protests against the clinic. (proquesttripod)

This is a study on how political polarization affects the adoption of TRAP laws. Trapped includes footage of lawmakers but is more concerned with the effects of their legislation on abortion providers. (taylor&francis online, tripod)

Image Source

Magda Werkmeister, 2019.


Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 24 min

Image result for khush pratibha parmar

(still from Khush where two women look directly into the camera as a clip from a Bharatanatyam performance is projected behind them)


“What do you enjoy the most about being gay? Two things: one is sex and one is solidarity.”

In Khush, Pratibha Parmar brings light to the queer Indian experience through a series of interviews with native and diasporic Indians. The interviewees speak candidly about their experiences with racism and homophobia, and the ways in which their desire for authenticity and freedom is weighted against their need to maintain community in the face of othering and racial violence. Parmar also leaves space for the joy of queerness. Khush, in Urdu, means ecstatic pleasure. While many of Parmar’s subjects share their struggles, they also share the communities, relationships, and discoveries that have led them to self-discovery and actualization. The interviewees are allowed the voice and agency that many of them have been previously denied.

Parmar’s voice, as that of the documentary filmmaker, is largely absent from the film, allowing the narratives of her subjects to speak for themselves. However, she intersperses clips of traditional cultural imagery with the interviews. Scenes of Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance, are juxtaposed with interviewees’ struggle to reconcile their queer Indian identities as they face pressure from their communities and the outside world to assimilate or risk persecution. Through this blend of the traditional and the revolutionary, of trauma and joy, Parmar presents a compelling and intimate portrait of Indian queer life and community.


Bibliographic Item:

Farr D., Gauthier J. (2012) Screening Queer India in Pratibha Parmar’s Khush. In: Pullen C. (eds) LGBT Transnational Identity and the Media. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Feminists: What Were They Thinking?

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 86 min

Cynthia MacAdams in Feminists: What Were They Thinking (2018)

Women involved in the Second Wave Feminist movement in the USA reflect on their experiences as self-identified feminists. The documentary is centered around a 1977 photobook containing photographs of each woman as a young adult and is crosscut with candid interviews with the same women four decades later. The women highlight the impact their movement had on history while addressing the shortcomings of the largely white, middle-class, exclusionary movement.

Suggested further reading:

The Decentering of Second Wave Feminism and the Rise of the Third Wave by Susan Mann and Douglas Huffman, section: THE EARLY THIRD WAVE: INTERSECTIONALITY AND POSTMODERNISM/POST-STRUCTURALISM





Demetrakas, Johanna. “Feminists: What Were They Thinking?.” Netflix, Feb 19, 2018.

Mann, Susan Archer, and Douglas J. Huffman. “The Decentering of Second Wave Feminism and the Rise of the Third Wave.” Science & Society, vol. 69, no. 1, 2005, pp. 56–91. JSTOR,

Spirits of Rebellion: Black Independent Cinema from Los Angeles

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 101 min


(Spirits of Rebellion, Zeinabu Davis, 2017)

Zeinabu Davis, director of Spirits of Rebellion, was one of the black filmmakers and media artists known as the Los Angeles Rebellion. In this documentary, Davis chronicles the work of her cohort, and the greater context that facilitated the LA Rebellion– even tracing back to the origin of the term “LA Rebellion”. She and D. Andy Rice combine interviews with LA Rebellion filmmakers, clips from their films, pictures and footage from their at UCLA, and narration. Davis’ narration acts less as a source of truth and more as another interview, weighed equally to those on-screen.

We hear in-depth about the experiences of this cohort of filmmakers at UCLA, highlighting Teshome Gabriel as a mentor instrumental to this artistic moment. After Gabriel’s passing, Davis realized that she wanted to uplift the contributions of her mentors and peers while they were still here, inspiring her to create this documentary. Filmmakers such as Julie Dash, Jamaa Fanaka, Charles Burnett, and Alile Sharon Larkin were interviewed about their work and their experiences in the film industry. While these interviews touch on how the white film industry has denied these filmmakers access — Haile Gerima notes  “white kids graduated to an industry, we graduated to a desert”– the way that Black communities showed up to support Black film is highlighted. For example, while chains like Blockbuster showed no interest in distributing films Gerima’s Sankofa, Black bookstores across the country would sell the film on home video.

Spirits of Rebellion is both an informative historical documentary on LA Rebellion filmmakers, and a documentary discussing the formal and artistic elements of LA Rebellion film. Just as the filmmakers of the LA Rebellion worked to teach and inspire young Black filmmakers with their work, Davis’ documentary is also instructive and inspiring.

For more information on the LA Rebellion:

L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart (tripod, jstor)

(Eva Logan ’22)

Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism

Running Time: 85 min

Mutantes: Punk Porn Feminism (Virginie Despentes, 2009, France, 85min)

Punk Porn Feminism is a queer feminist documentary that tells the radical pro-sex work and pro-porn stories of 1990s and 2000s sex workers, porn stars, queer and feminist theorist, queercore/punk musicians, and post-pornography producers.

The film is a familiar style. Images of porn, sex work or rather promiscuous street behavior, and live music were interspersed with testimonies from different professionals, workers, and creators. When someone was not talking, there was usually a montage of different clips or a scattered view, which felt edited like montage, of some explicit sexual act.

The main purpose of the documentary is to shed light on the lives of sex workers and how despite most of 2nd wave feminist thought, their work is in fact radically feminist and sexually liberating. This form of radical feminism is first proved by older/retired sex-workers and then by punk music. It then transitions to the combination of the two: punk porn or post-pornography. This queering of pornography has allowed for a new wave of pornographic filmmakers who have created their own channels of “fetish porn” that was otherwise unpublished for not being palatable (aka heterosexual, cis-gendered, and male-focused). What truly tied the whole film together were the academics, who were verified by the montage of different books they had written, who brought truth value to the radical, shocking nature of the film.



Schaal, M. (2016). Bridging Feminist Waves: Wendy Delorme’s Insurrections! En territoire sexuel. Rocky Mountain Review, 70(2), 175-196. Retrieved from

Gregory, T., & Lorange, A. (2018). Teaching post-pornography. Cultural Studies Review, 24(1), 137-149. doi:

Peter Rehberg (2019) More than vanilla sex: reading gay post-pornography with affect theory and psychoanalysis, Porn Studies, 6:1, 114-128, DOI: 10.1080/23268743.2018.1559088

Kanopy Link:

Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 108 min

Image Source:

In Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989), Trinh T. Minh-Ha deconstructs the idea that documentary reveals the “real world,” especially within the context of the ethnographic interview, and critiques the ways “ideologies of authenticity legitimize exclusionary systems of representation” (Gracki, 53). In the first half of the film, the audience is shown a series of first-person interviews, seemingly of Vietnamese women in Vietnam, intercut with newsreel footage, still photos of the Vietnam war, and footage of traditional folk dances. The interviewed women are dressed in the simple attire of socialist Vietnam, a “feminist natural look,” forming an impression of a “natural” portrayal of the Vietnamese feminist activist, and the footage aligns with and reproduces popular Eurocentric conceptions of Vietnam. In the second half of the film, this illusion of an “authentic” representation is shattered as the previously seen women are revealed to be non-professional Vietnamese actresses living in California – the interviews are, in reality, reenactments of the translated and transcribed interviews originally conducted by Mai Thu Van in Vietnam: un peuple, desvoix. In the second half of the film, Minh-Ha interviews the actresses, questioning them on why they agreed to be a part of the film, and displays footage of them in their day-to-day, “real life” activities. In these interviews, the women no longer dress in costume, and are able to choose their clothing — this time, it appears to be a more “genuine” account of them. Yet, even now, in these “real” interviews, the women choose to wear showy clothing and makeup that they don’t wear in ordinary life, and choose backgrounds for the interviews, such as a fish pond, that don’t represent their own lived realities. Paradoxically, the performative nature of this self-representation is able to reveal more about their lived experience as working class women, and in this way, Minh-Ha illustrates how “fictionalization need not be associated with fraud, duplicity and lies, for it is ultimately able to draw out a greater truth than the mere attempt to mirror ‘reality’ and everyday life” (Gracki, 52). Ultimately, Min-Ha exposes the way ethnographic films and film makers construct authenticity for ideological reasons, and the way these neocolonial narratives of authenticity “exclude, silence, and objectify Third World Women within debilitating stereotypes that not only deny them agency and subjectivity, but make this lack appear somehow ‘natural’ and inevitable” (Gracki, 53).

Bibliographic item:

To understand the intentions behind and develop a greater understanding of the critical theory surrounding Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, it may be helpful to read the book Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, especially Chapter 3: Difference: “A Special Third World Woman Issue,” and the journal article Documentary Is/Not a Name, both written by Trinh Minh-Ha. I also found the journal article True Lies: Staging the Ethnographic Interview in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989) by Katherine Gracki to be incredibly enlightening in attempting to understand the film and getting a background to its creation, release, and reception.

Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism:,contains,woman%20native%20other&offset=0

Documentary Is/Not a Name:

True Lies: Staging the Ethnographic Interview in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989):

Strong Island (2017)



Filmmaker: Yance Ford

Year: 2017

Running Time: 107 minutes

Country of Origin: United States

Streaming: Netflix


Filmmaker Yance Ford, in this achingly personal documentary, investigates the 1992 murder of his older brother, William Ford Jr., chronicling the arc of a family across history, geography and tragedy. Ford traces his familial history from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City, through multiple generations affected by the socio-political tides of New York. Prominently featuring the Ford family — Barbara Dunmore, William Ford and their three children — the film explores how the lives and communities which surround Yance Ford were shaped by the enduring tensions of race in America. A deeply intimate and meditative film, featuring frequent appearances by the filmmaker disrupting the fourth wall and addressing the viewer in the self-reflexive documentary style, Strong Island poses questions around racial injustice in contemporary America and how complicity, grief, and silence continue to affect the pursuit of justice.

While the film looks at the injustice surrounding the murder of William Ford Jr., the interview style of Ford’s family and Ford himself examines themes of resilience, overcoming grief, guilt, and the intersection at which Yance Ford’s identity as a queer, trans black artist is silenced in the course of tragedy. While the ‘queering’ of the documentary style is subtle in Strong Island, Ford’s high-contrast, head-on self-interviews is jarring and new to the otherwise traditional documentary style of the film, replete with medium shot interviews, recreations, archival images and documents. Instead of being kept at a safe distance, audience members are forced to very literally sit near and within the emotionally-tortured head of the filmmaker himself. The courageous self-exposure in these moments of grief, pain, and tension disrupts the otherwise pre-packaged formulae of commercial true crime docs.



Strong Island film website

“Towards Trans Cinema,” Eliza Steinbock

Black, queer, and transgender: Ford stands at the intersection of America’s most marginalized groups — and he is so much more than the sum of his parts. Throughout the 10-year process of making “Strong Island…”

(Chili Shi ‘22)

Visions of Abolition: From Critical Resistance to a New Way of Life

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 92 min

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(image from

This two part documentary was designed by activists and community organizers directly impacted by the violence of incarceration, as a tool to educate communities about the prison industrial complex and the prison abolition movement in the United States.

Part one, “Breaking down the Prison Industrial Complex,” provides a critique of mass incarceration, tracing its history to the war on drugs and its roots in slavery and capitalism. It “weaves together the voices of women caught in the criminal justice system, and leading scholars of prison abolition, examining the racial and gendered violence of the prison system” ( Part two, “Abolition: Past, Present & Future,” discusses examples of prison abolitionist ideologies and frameworks in practice. Visions of Abolition features interviews with scholars, activists, and previously incarcerated women, including Angela Y. Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Susan Burton, Melissa Burch, Dylan Rodriguez, and Andrea Smith. 

Importantly, Visions of Abolition was not made by trained filmmakers, nor was it made with the specific intention of creating a film. It began as a community research project with LEAD (a branch of a grassroots organization called Critical Resistance), wherein interns interviewed people about their experiences with the prison industrial complex. It was then made into a full length documentary by student activists at UC Riverside, who determined that documentary would be the most effective way to synthesize and present information about the cause for which they were advocating. Thus, rather than an artistic or creative endeavour, documentary as a form was seen by these directors as a means to an end–a tool for the goal of political education. 

Since the documentary was released in 2013, women have become the fastest growing group in the US prison population, and it has been reported that between 70 and 90% of people incarcerated within women’s prisons have experienced sexual and/or domestic violence prior to being incarcerated.

Bibliographic item:

This bibliographic item is the website for a prison abolitionist group called Survived and Punished, which focuses on ending the criminalization of survivors of sexual and domestic violence and abolishing all forms of gender violence. The group has a nuanced analysis of the ways the Carceral State perpetuates gender violence, criminalizes survivors, and relegates people to places where gender violence is routinized and state sanctioned (prisons, jails, and detention centers). The website contains many toolkits, curricula, publications, projects, and resources. It can help elaborate on and complicate the documentary’s discussion of the ways in which the Carceral State perpetuates gender violence and has more up to date statistics and resources.

Hooligan Sparrow

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 81 min
Women's rights activist, Ye Hiayan (AKA Hooligan Sparrow), holds a sign which reads, "All China Women's Federation is a Farce. China's Women's Rights are Dead."

Women’s rights activist, Ye Hiayan (AKA Hooligan Sparrow), holds a sign which reads, “All China Women’s Federation is a Farce. China’s Women’s Rights are Dead.” Source:


CW: sexual abuse

In Hooligan Sparrow, Chinese-American filmmaker Nanfu Wang documents the experiences of contemporary women’s rights activists in China, namely Ye Haiyan (aka Hooligan Sparrow). After the Chinese government refused to investigate a case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal, Hooligan Sparrow and her fellow activists decide to protest in the streets of Hainan Province, calling attention to China’s legal loopholes that allow rapists to claim child victims should be charged with underage prostitution instead of being held accountable for their crimes. Once the women speak out, they are labeled enemies of the state and are met with intense government surveillance and intimidation. Despite multiple altercations with undercover government agents (in which some of her cameras were destroyed), Wang is able to smuggle the film’s guerilla-style footage, shot with concealed body cameras and secret-camera glasses, back to the United States.

One key element of Hooligan Sparrow is Wang’s presence throughout the film. From the very beginning, she situates herself as the filmmaker, explains who she is, and why she traveled back to China after completing film school in the United States. Multiple times in the film, the audience sees Wang’s reflection in mirrors and windows with her camera in hand, or hears her voice in audio recordings; the audience is always aware that Wang is behind the camera. Given Wang’s presence, the film is also able to capture the relationship between the filmmaker and the film’s key characters, adding another layer of depth to the work.

Bibliographic items: – An interview conducted by journalists Zeng Jinyan and Tan Jia with Nanfu Wang about the editing process and the filmmaker’s perspectives on China.

The Politics of Looking: A Critical Exploration of Hooligan Sparrow

An interview and critical analysis conducted by journalist Rebecca Anderson with Nanfu Wang, which puts Hooligan Sparrow in conversation with the work of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere. Ranciere writes that images produced and circulated by society’s dominant culture shape the public’s perception of what is normal and possible, which helps to explain why authoritarian governments put so much effort into censoring images and other forms of media. Those who wish to disrupt the status quo, therefore, might employ images to inspire political change. Anderson argues that Wang might be considered one such example, given that she weaponizes film to document China’s human rights atrocities and create counternarratives to those of the Chinese government.

— by Allison Naganuma