Category Archives: Documentary

Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 127 min

SYNOPSIS: Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is a documentary film by woman Soviet filmmaker Esfir Shub. As a member of the revolutionary avant-garde, Shub constructed this narrative documentary entirely through editing found stock footage, creating what scholars believe is the first Soviet montage. Shub compiled this film in order to give the first historical account of the events that led to the October Revolution. Juxtaposed with classical music and interlaced text on black background, Shub describes in a propagandistic manner the social and political unrest across Russia during the years between 1913 to 1917, culminating in the victory of the Bolsheviks. The film traces in chronological order class tensions, the brutality of the First World War, and a pointed negligence of the Tsar and his ministers– all catalysts of a revolution. Notable highlights include juxtaposed shots of the bourgeois leisure with peasant workers, portrait shots of ministers from the “hateful regime,” soldiers fighting in trenches on the front lines, and workers marching on the streets with signs of celebration. The film ends with footage of Lenin informally shaking hands with a worker.

Esfir Shub was part of the Lev collective, an avant-garde literary and visual publication that fully embraced the communist conception of artist as worker. Working within a larger Constructivist moment, Shub was allowed the resources and opportunity to work with male artists as equals and thus, contributed this propagandistic film to the promotion of the communist party. Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

You can find the film at:
To learn more about gender and Soviet film, visit:
Stollery, Martin. “Eisenstein, Shub and the Gender of the Author as Producer.” Film History: An International Journal, vol. 14, no. 1, 2002, pp. 87–99., doi:10.2979/fil.2002.14.1.87.
Photo from IMDb.

Bellara Huang, Fall 2019, Feminist Film and Media Studies

CORPUS: A Home Movie for Selena

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 49 min

In CORPUS: A Home Movie for Selena, Lourdes Portillo explores the rising career, untimely death and lasting legacy of Tejana-Pop crossover sensation, Selena Quintanilla. Through interviews with family members, interactions with fans, a facilitated discussion among Latina intellectuals and home-video, Portillo creates a tapestry of Selena, the Latina and Selena, the phenomenon. There are incredibly touching scenes of never-before-seen home video of the iconic Quintanilla family as well as insightful, if not devastating interviews with Selena’s father and big sister. The heart of this documentary, though, is the collection of moments with fans Portillo captures across Selena’s hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. Notable highlights include a moment with a devoted older Latina fan who comes to clean Selena’s tombstone every morning, a moment where aspiring young Latina girls express their connection to the late superstar through performances, and a controversial scene depicting a drag queen performing as Selena.

The piece was created for a PBS docuseries called POV in 1999 and from its release, created plenty of criticism from the Quintanilla family, but was generally well-received by the Chicano community as a work that captured what Selena meant to an often overlooked community. The piece also features excerpts from a discussion of leading Latina “intellectuals” including acclaimed author, Sandra Cisneros, who notably (and controversially) criticizes the broader message that Selena sends to young Chicanas. Though the piece has its faults, it excels at starting a conversation around Selena, who, 25 years after her death, remains a giant in Chicanx culture and does so with a uniquely Brown and uniquely feminist lens.


For more on Selena’s legacy in the Chicanx community, read Deborah Paredez’s Selenidad: Selena Latinos and the Performance of Memory

(Jonathan Galvan ’21)

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

Country of Origin: , ,
Running Time: 103 min
Two indigenous women sit at the trial of Efraín Ríos Monttt shown in 500 Years, Yates third film; photo credits: Daniel Herna?ndez-Salazar

Two indigenous women sit at the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt shown in 500 Years, Yates third film; photo credits: Daniel Hernández-Salazar

This documentary is the second in an assumed trilogy by Pamela Yates that centers on the indictment of General Efraín Ríos Montt for his perpetuation of the Mayan genocide during the 80’s-armed conflict. Yates’ previous film, When the Mountains Tremble, released in 1983, centered on the Guatemalan armed conflict between the Guatemalan national army and the guerrilla, rebel forces. Many of those affected by the conflicted were the countless Mayan indigenous people and ladino peasants (non-indigenous, mestizos who were poor). This was very astounding given that 40% of Guatemala’s population consists of indigenous Mayan people. In the aftermath of this violence, there were brutal murders of nearly 200,000 Mayan people and many more disappeared.

This film in particular flashes back to her previous film, which she filmed at the center of the armed conflict in Guatemala because there was a lot of first-hand witnessing of the Guatemalan soldiers in action and interviews with many of them. Granito serves as a reflection on capturing the Mayan genocide that was taking place during the time of filming the initial film. As seen in the film, Yates’ original film seemed to be the only first-hand evidence that human rights lawyers could use to indict General Ríos Montt. The lawyers, specifically in Spain, wanted to indict him of knowing that the Mayan people were being killed in genocide under his rule and power, but they had no other evidence that could prove such claim. Throughout the film, you hear and see from Yates as she reflects on her film from 1983, recounting moments when she interviewed Ríos Montt to her, and other indigenous people, speaking to a judge so that his trial could take place.

This film reflects on the previous film of the armed conflict recounting trauma from the Mayan people and seeking accountability and justice on the part of Ríos Montt for the violence he enacted on indigenous people in Guatemala.

Review essay:

Stoll, David. “Genocide in Guatemala?” Academic Questions, vol. 31, no. 2, 17 Apr. 2018, pp. 219–226., doi:10.1007/s12129-018-9702-8.

(by Andrés Pérez Correa)

Yours in Sisterhood

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 101 min
Yours in Sisterhood movie poster

Yours in Sisterhood

Yours in Sisterhood gives life to the voices of women living in the 1970s while showing the ways that being a woman has and has not changed over time. The film shows a selection of interviews in which a person is asked to read a letter that was penned in the 1970s to Ms. Magazine but was never published and then answer questions about the letter. Almost every interview is shown as a continuous shot, or as at most three shots cut together. Every reader is from the same town as the author of the letter and has personal experience with the issues being discussed in the letter. The topics of the letters include environmental justice, race, sexuality and gun control and are all about the experience of women in America. They discuss the opinions of prisoners, sex workers, children, and senior citizens. Their are readers who sympathize deeply with the writers of their letter and there are readers who critique or scoff at the author of the letter they read. Many of the letters contain perspectives or opinions that would have been considered to devient in their time and that were not published by Ms. Magazine to avoid alienating the mainstream readership or distracting from what Ms. perceived to be the main issues. The film draws attention to whose voices we are not hearing in feminist and womens spaces, both then and now.

A book by the same name as the film which also explores unpublished Ms. letters can be found by members of the TriCo at:

A citation of the book follows:

Farrell, Amy Erdman. Yours in Sisterhood?: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Print.

Citation of the movie poster:

Lusztig, Irene. “Yours in Sisterhood Poster.” Women Make Movies, Women Make Movies,

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

Filmmaker: Kirsten Johnson

Year: 2016

Country of Origin: United States

Format: Streaming

Running time: 102 min

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 4.23.54 PM

Still from Cameraperson


Documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson takes the audience on a reflective journey through her career in this documentary comprised of footage from decades of past projects. Described as a “memoir” of “images that have marked me and leave me wondering still,” Johnson reflects outwards, meditating on the documentary form and its relationship to ideas of truth and transparency, and inwards, exploring the ways being a cinematographer has shaped her emotional and personal life. She moves from a boxing match in Brooklyn to a nursery in Nigeria to postwar Bosnia in a structure that initially feels like a stream of consciousness, but is in fact deliberately designed to pose philosophical and ethical questions that stay with you long after the film has ended.

Bill Nichols writes extensively on the documentary form and how its changed over history, each iteration of form a reaction to the last in a futile attempt to portray the objective truth. The inclusion of “mistakes”–the moments of acknowledgement of the camera by the subjects, the shaky camerawork as Johnson sets up her next shot, the times when Johnson herself is heard reacting to the events on screen or interacting with the subjects–gives this film a layer of transparency which reminds us that there is a human behind the image. This resembles elements of what he considers “reflexive documentary” which makes use of a self reflexive critique or statement to acknowledge the documentary form and its impact on authenticity. These “mistakes” are moments that would be left out of any other documentary for the sake of presenting a perfect film product or portraying an objective truth, which is impossible. In this alignment, the audience is able to acknowledge the subjectivity of the image–in the mistakes, we see how the camera image is used to promote an ideology, to emphasize or ignore, to reveal a truth through lying or lie to tell the truth (Koresky).

Halfway through the film, there is a montage of locations around the world where atrocities–murders, rapes, torture–took place. Afterwards, a Bosnian translator and a field producer are discussing their careers documenting the stories of victims of humanitarian atrocities. “Our jobs are hard because we process these stories and we put them inside ourselves. So how do we deal with the trauma…we who collect these stories and share them with the world?” Cameraperson succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to describe the truth of the world, but rather Johnson’s personal truth as someone who has become one with her medium. When a filmmaker shows this level of vulnerability, you can’t look away. By taking advantage of film’s ability to connect ideas over time, using time and place to come to a greater realization of what it means to document, to experience, and to live.

Bibliographic Items:

Koresky, Michael. I Am a Camera. Film Comment; Vol. 52, Iss. 5

The Cancer Journals Revisited

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 98 min
Still from The Cancer Journals Revisited

Still from The Cancer Journals Revisited

The Cancer Journals Revisited is a film that honors the life of Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde. In this film, Lana Lin reflects on the meanings and implications of Lorde’s memoir The Cancer Journals (1980) by joining the text with interviews of 27 current and former breast cancer patients. The patients featured in the film are largely women of color. They read aloud and reflect on excerpts from Lorde’s memoir, sharing personal anecdotes and messages about what it is like to navigate illness and treatment in America. While not restricted to a solely American context, the film’s focus on American society is reflective of the critiques found in Lorde’s memoir. As the audience learns about the experiences of the various readers, viewers are also presented with information about Lorde’s life in the form of on-screen text and shots of archived materials––such as The Cancer Journals’ original manuscript box. Lin also inserts herself into the film through text overlay, acting as a “container” or “holding environment” to support the readers’ stories. 

In a class conversation with the director, Lin described The Cancer Journals Revisited as a film, shying away from the labels documentary and experimental. This perspective is absent from reviews of the film, as most film festivals have placed The Cancer Journals Revisited in the documentary category. During this conversation, Lin also spoke about her decision to produce a film combining 4K, 16mm, and super 8mm raw stock shots. She explained that the decision to film on leftover raw stock came before she conducted the readings and interviews. Throughout the film, the raw stock serves as B-roll. In some scenes, Lin’s interviews begin with the interviewee on-screen and shift to a voice-over. For example, one reader’s interview served as a voice-over for an extended shot of two people doing Acro Yoga. While some of the scenes could be considered distracting, they display different bodies in relationship with one another––a major theme in Lorde’s life and writing. The Cancer Journals Revisited pays homage to Lorde in that it leaves out the opinion of cancer experts and centers the lived experiences of breast cancer patients of color.

Members of the TriCo can find The Cancer Journals memoir at this link:

Other prominent works by Audre Lorde include Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (1982) and Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984).


July, Beandrea. “Documentaries That Make New Connections Between the Personal and Political.” Hyperallergic, 2019. (

Girlhood (Dir: Liz Garbus, 2003)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 88 min
The film's protagonists, Megan Jensen and Shanae Watkins

The film’s protagonists, Megan Jensen and Shanae Watkins

The documentary “Girlhood” follows the lives of two girls, Shanae and Megan, from 1999-2002, during and shortly after their release from Waxter Juvenile Facility in Maryland. At the beginning of the documentary, Shanae and Megan are 14 and 16, serving time for murder and assault, respectively. The title of the film is overly simple and, to an extent, revealing in its simplicity.

The documentary, indeed, treats “girlhood” as its subject – a phase of life distinct from womanhood, childhood or any other experience. In an interview with NPR, the film’s director, Liz Garbus, admits that “Girlhood” was originally a documentary about incarcerated boys, but the girls’ stories were more interesting to her. Garbus’ interest in and empathy for her subjects and, more importantly, the way in which she relays their girlhood, makes for an entertaining and emotional documentary, but perhaps an incomplete one. Throughout the film, we are sympathetic to the challenges of Shanae and Megan’s girlhoods, but cannot substantively grasp, through the documentary, the unresolved nature of their status, as girls in a system that seeks to destroy not just girlhood, but life beyond girlhood too.

“Girlhood” misses some of the nuance of the girlhoods that it seeks to document in a few ways. The girls’ crimes obviously color their experiences of girlhood, but they are humanized by Garbus’ editorial choices – through camera angles, the stories we hear, the presentation of various sympathetic or irresponsible adults that accessorize and control the girls’ lives. Humanizing those who have committed crimes– especially children – is a good thing to do, and certainly expands the viewer’s capacity to embrace complicated narratives and emotions. But Garbus’ way of humanizing, in some instances, obfuscates the complexity of struggle, survival and the “bad” from the girls’ girlhood. In Garbus’ film, Shanae and Megan’s girlhood set up a dichotomy: girlhood is good, everything else threatening, extraneous and intrusive, instead of part of the story of girlhood itself. That is not to say that traumatic experience, crime or drug abuse are “good,” but that in these stories they exist and persist, even when the girls triumph and go to prom or spend time with family. Treating the girls’ girlhoods as linear stories of “overcoming” erases the fullness, pain and challenge of all that comprises their girlhoods.

Garbus explains that she encountered the “contradictions” of Shanae and Megan’s girlhoods early on; she mentions that she was “struck by [Shanae’s] little girl-ness, her innocence,” but this was complicated by what she “learned about the violence of her crime.” That is to say, Garbus sees crime and girlhood as opposite experiences. This presumption is damaging because ultimately Garbus’ makes uncomplicated subjects of the girls. The girls’ tragic relationships with their mothers, their struggles with sexuality, their experiences with rape and sexual assault, drug use and poverty have shaped their lives in and out of jail. In Garbus’ version of their lives, these experiences do not “bring them down.” They emerge triumphant; their girlhood, we end up hoping, will be “salvaged.” LA Times reviewer Manohla Dargis notes, Garbus’ obsession with levity ultimately triumphs, leaving us with an unfinished picture: “ … [T]o turn complex and contradictory lives into palatable narratives, is one of the least-examined pitfalls in nonfiction filmmaking. But in [Garbus’] attempt to give their lives a shape that the girls themselves seem to resist, this talented filmmaker has done both herself and them a disservice.”

The field of Girlhood Studies continues to grow and perhaps offers guidance in understanding where Garbus erred. Mary Celeste Kearney writes that in approaching girlhood, sociological research, interestingly, often focused on “female juvenile delinquency.” In recent years, however, Girlhood Studies has grown to include and account for multiple narratives of girlhood, and actively attempts not to make girlhood inferior to womanhood, or take it less seriously. This documentary does look at the intersections of various identities and even struggles, but it fails to count them as essential facets of girlhood for Shanae and Megan. Garbus’ rigidity in framing the girls’ experiences does not allow for the expansiveness and complexity allowed by new theories of girlhood. Shanae and Megan’s girlhoods contain all that which other parts of life contain, and to think of Garbus’ idea of “girlhood” as “winning” at the end of the film is short-sighted and perhaps fails to move forward with Girlhood Studies’ attention to complexity and fullness (including pain) of this part of life for her subjects.

In the end, it seems the title “Girlhood” is both revealing and a misnomer: this film is about the liminal space of girlhoods colored by destabilizing events in their lives (and the larger systems and circumstances dictated by a society that easily discards the humanity of girls, people of color, queer people, differently abled people and poor people). The film, however, makes Shanae and Megan’s girlhoods into victory stories when, instead, they are something much more complex.



Monday’s Girls

Country of Origin: ,
Running Time: 50 min


Monday’s Girls, directed by the British-Nigerian filmmaker Ngozi Onwurah, opens by introducing the viewer to two young women from Ogoloma, a fishing town in the southern Rivers State of Nigeria as they prepare for Iria, a five-week ritual meant to prepare girls for marriage. Both girls are from prominent families in the town, but while Florence, who was raised in Ogoloma, is eager and proud to participate in the tradition, Asikiye, a music student who is returning from the city for the first time in 10 years, has only come at the persuasion of her parents, and is determined to only participate in the aspects of the ceremony that she is comfortable with.

The primary point of contention comes when Asikiye refuses to bare her breasts during a part of the ritual in which the iriabos (girls participating in Iria) are supposed to appear bare-chested before the entire town to have their bodies examined by a council of elder women (the leader of this council, Monday Moses, gives the film its title) to ensure that they have been chaste. In one particularly compelling scene, Florence, having passed the test, picks up a ticket certifying her chastity from the male council of chiefs to the sounds of drumming and the applause of the entire town, while Asikiye sits in a darkened room, her face painted with the elaborate designs of the other iriabos but having refused to be a part of the ritual, angrily venting her frustrations to an unseen woman.

Asikiye is sent home in disgrace but unrepentant, and the focus of the film temporarily shifts to Florence and the other iriabos during their time in the “fattening rooms,” where they undergo a month-long period of seclusion and relative immobility, aided by heavy bronze rings fitted on their legs, so that when they emerge from the rooms they will be plump and ready for marriage. The film offers a complex view of this ceremony – Florence describes enjoying her time eating and resting, and being made to feel attractive and appreciated, but also acknowledges that her legs are uncomfortable and she is tired of being in the rooms. She receives advice from the older women on how to breastfeed as well as how to please a husband by being submissive as we see shots of Asikiye dancing with a man in a nightclub. The division between tradition and modernity is also not clear cut — Asikiye clearly lives a more ‘modern’ life than those in Ogoloma, but Florence, who we learn identifies as a Christian, listens to hip hop and reggae on the radio while in the fattening rooms, and ultimately decides to finish her education before getting married.

Ultimately, Monday’s Girls provides an in-depth look at a multifaceted tradition, depicts the costs and benefits of different paths available to women in a changing society, and introduces us to two thoughtful and very distinct characters who are firm in the choices they make for themselves.


Initiation ceremony, marriage, Nigeria, women, tradition vs modernity, Iria


Anderson, Melissa. Review of Becoming a Woman in Okrika by Judith Gleason, Elisa Mereghetti and Monday’s Girls by Ngozi Onwurah. African Arts vol. 29 no. 4, 1996, pp. 76-78, 96. Accessed 21 Jan 2016.



No Girls Allowed (dir. Darlene Craviotto, 2011)

Filmmaker: Darlene Craviotto
Year: 2011
Country of origin: United States
Running Time: 52 min.
Original Format: Digital Video, DVD

No Girls Allowed 

Up until 1983, Philadelphia’s Central High School enjoyed a longstanding and prestigious reputation as America’s last all-male public school. Darlene Craviotto’s 2011 documentary No Girls Allowed traces the steps taken by seven girls who changed its legacy forever.

The film begins with the court case between Central High and Susan Vorchheimer, who wanted to attend the school because of its superior academic opportunities. Despite a court-ordered mandate to let her in, the school was obstinate in its unisex tradition, and she was not allowed to attend Central. Vorchheimer remained at Girls High, the standard choice for girls in the area. A few years later, a group of six students from Girls High pushed even harder for admittance to the boys’ school and won what Vorchheimer couldn’t; it was not, however, won easily.

In interviews with the women who achieved desegregation at Central, they coolly recount the relentless name-calling, pranks, and the overall sense of heavy isolation inflicted upon them not only by their male classmates but by their male teachers as well. These stories, however, do not infuse the film with the gloominess that may be expected. They discuss the sadness they felt because of these events but seem more excited to recall inspiring moments of resistance: the press conference in which they boldly declared their right to equal education to the media, the astute sense that they were involved in a defining moment for women’s liberation, and the striking image of flowers planted in the urinals of the newly-instated girls’ bathroom (the building had no urinal-free bathrooms, for obvious reasons).

Craviotto’s clear narratorial voice and rigorous incorporation of local newspaper articles and news segments makes No Girls Allowed a valuable resource for anyone seeking a personalized collective account of what happened at Central High. The events that transpired when the Central Six refused to be shut out by the “traditions” so dearly clung to by an ivy-clad institution illuminate feminism’s intersections with educational policy and the patriarchal history of American public schooling.

“The story of the struggle to open Central High School to female students is vividly reconstructed by filmmaker Darlene Craviotto in her engaging documentary No Girls Allowed.”
–  Juliet A. Williams
The Separate Solution? Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality, pp. 167.

Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 75 min

This documentary, directed by Mikaela Shwer, tells the story of Angy Rivera, a young undocumented woman living in New York City with her family. Rivera (who was born in Colombia) and her mother both are undocumented, but her two younger brothers are citizens, having been born in the United States.

This divide is just one of many featured in the film. Don’t Tell Anyone features a number of conflicts between generations, political philosophies, and internal dialogues. Although the film is mostly told from a third person perspective, with its subjects in front of the camera, the film occasionally pulls the viewer into a pseudo-first person perspective through the insertion of home videos and webcam clips of the documentary’s subjects.

The focus of the film ultimately is the immigration status of its main subject, Angy Rivera. Using creative media like the standard interview, amateur video, and animation, Shwer creates a retrospective, showing how being undocumented has affected the actions and the mindsets of the family. The first, and perhaps most obvious side effect of being undocumented is the stigmatization that being “illegal” carries. This is where the title comes from – growing up, Angy was told by her mother never to tell anyone that she was undocumented. But the presence of this stigma becomes the most inspiring rallying cry for Angy (and therefore the viewer). In order to break the stigma, the audience is shown how Angy has sought to reach out to her community and unite. She has an advice column, speaks at community events, and participates in rallies, in which she and others “come out” as undocumented. Naturally, this worries her mother.

The most compelling part of the movie, however, comes later, when the retrospective ends and a different mode of storytelling begins. We experience what Angy experiences, negotiating life as an undocumented student trying to afford college tuition. Then, when Angy learns she may be eligible for a special visa because of a sexual assault committed against her, we experience the same mixed emotions of celebrating a path to citizenship while also questioning a system that only treats undocumented immigrants as people if they are victims of a crime. As she waits, we wait, hoping that she gets her little slice of a government-sanctioned American Dream.

In spite of a happy ending for Angy—she gets her visa—a visit to a rally for undocumented immigrants ultimately reminds us that Angy Rivera is just one in a huge sea of undocumented people, making the ending bittersweet. More importantly, however, this marks a call for social awareness: undocumented immigrants are here and deserve fulfilling, safe lives.


Bibliographic items: