The power of women is just one of the themes connecting a trio of films screening at this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival.
In filmmaker Mary Dore’s case, this meant turning to her past for inspiration to make She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, an overview of second-wave feminism from 1966 to 1971. Reached on the phone in Brooklyn, Dore said she’d been a part of the women’s movement in Boston in the 1970s. “It sort of just dawned on me that I wanted to make a movie about the movement I was involved in.”
The documentary, which is receiving its Canadian premiere at the fest, combines historical video clips and contemporary interviews with activists including Marilyn Webb, Kate Millett, and Virginia Whitehill, chronicling the roots of the movement and its rapid rise in American society.
“I just thought that was the most interesting subject. How do you start a movement out of nothing?” said Dore. “It just grew so broadly and quickly and I thought what an amazing story, how did that even happen?”
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry examines the movement’s motto, “The personal is political,” highlighting the many ways women sought to claim agency over their own bodies, including publishing the seminal text, Our Bodies, Ourselves, creating their own schools, and forming the Jane Collective, an underground abortion service that helped 11,000 women during its existence.
Second-wave feminism is often decried for its non-inclusion of women of colour and lesbians, and She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry doesn’t shy away from showing the movement’s internal divides and controversies.
While battles over many of the issues second-wave feminists tackled—including reproductive rights, rape, and sexual harassment—are still being fought, Dore has seen a shift in the perception of feminism since commencing her project.
“Since I’ve worked on this film for such a long time, in the beginning it was the period when the word feminist was really being disparaged, even more than today. It was just a completely negative concept,” she said. “And now, in many places there’s sort of an opening moment where feminism is actually being taken seriously and the word isn’t being quite as disparaged.”
For New York filmmaker Shannon Sun-Higginson, a single clip of online harassment was what motivated her 2014 film, GTFO: Get the F&#% Out. In 2012, a friend sent Sun-Higginson a video of a female gamer being sexually harassed during a gaming session.
“I told him I thought that was outrageous. He said it was pretty par for the course for the stuff that you see when you read about gaming culture,” said Sun-Higginson, reached by phone in Brooklyn.
As someone who wasn’t a big video-game player, Sun-Higginson said she was “really, really shocked” by the stories women told her when she began interviewing subjects for the documentary and reading some of the threats they’d received. “It was really tough. Looking at scary threatening messages all day is not necessarily good for your brain.”
While GTFO examines the sexism inherent in the creation and marketing of video games, as well as the often negative perceptions of female gamers, Sun-Higginson also shows how women are transforming the male-dominated industry.
“What I found from making this movie is that there’s a really strong connection between new, creative, positive, independent games and women because I think those independent areas of creation are becoming a lot more accessible,” she said. “The game-building programs are becoming really cheap and easy and available, and if you are part of a group where you might feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t really want to be the only woman in the room’, it kind of works in your favour to create an independent group that’s making a small, beautiful game.”
While the harassment of women who game has become synonymous with a single word—GamerGate—the film only mentions GamerGate in a short postscript, as Sun-Higginson’s film was completed by the time the controversy exploded onto the cultural landscape in August 2014.
“The silver lining of GamerGate is that people have a cultural touchstone now,” Sun-Higginson said. “When I talk about this project, I feel like before that happened I got a lot of blank stares.”
Nineteen-year-old Ala’a Basatneh is the focus of director Joe Piscatella’s DOXA entry, #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator.
“I’m known for being the guy who writes talking dog movies,” laughed the first-time director, referring to 2007’s live-action adaptation of Underdog during a call to the Straight from L.A. Piscatella, who had no prior connect to Syria, said he was inspired to make his film after reading a news item about Basatneh detailing a death threat she’d received from the Syrian regime on Facebook.
“I was hoping to tell a story of technology, revolution, and Syria,” said Piscatella. “I just was really intrigued by this idea of these young people using the technology that people like you and I use to get the best deal on sneakers and connect with old friends. They’re using it to topple governments.”
“I found Ala’a on Facebook and we traded some messages,” Piscatella recounted.” We finally got on the phone and I kept asking about this death threat and Ala’a said to me, ‘You’re asking me all the wrong questions.’ I thought that’s a very curious statement to make considering you don’t even know what my movie’s about. And I said, ‘Alright, what questions am I supposed to be asking?’ And that’s when she said, ‘I’m one of the coordinators of the revolution’.”
At first, Piscatella was skeptical of the teenager’s claim. After visiting with her in Chicago and watching her coordinate a protest in Damascus, however, he realized he had an opportunity to put a face to a conflict that was not at the forefront of most people’s minds. “She’s the entry into what’s a very difficult topic for people,” said Piscatella. “Here’s a story that will get people interested.”
Through making the film, Piscatella said Basatneh and the other young people in the movement were a source of inspiration.
“When I was growing up, I was told you can make a difference when you’re an adult. When you go to high school and go to college and you become something, then you’ll go out and make a difference. And I love this idea of these kids saying, ‘I don’t need to wait till I’m an adult, I have the tools to do it now.’”
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry screens at the Cinematheque on May 5 (6 p.m.) GTFO: Get the F&#% Out screens at the Vancity Theatre on May 8 (12:30 p.m.) and at the Cinematheque on May 9 (4:30 p.m.) #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator screens at the Vancity Theatre on May 6 (12:30 p.m.) as part of the DOXA festival.