Female documentary makers lauded at Tribeca

Common thread is 'empowerment'

NEW YORK -- Documentaries are the perfect genre for women, says Sheila Johnson, who produced "A Powerful Noise," a portrait of female activists and one of dozens of female-helmed documentaries playing this year at New York's Tribeca Film Festival.

"We have stories out there that need to be told," she says. "And the time has come to tell them."

Nancy Schafer, co-executive director of the festival and senior vp of Tribeca Enterprises, agrees, noting that there has been a proliferation of documentaries by women that have been accepted by the festival. Although the films cover a broad spectrum, from shorts to full-length features, a common theme is "the empowerment of women," Schafer says.

Besides "A Powerful Noise," there are "Lioness," "Gotta Dance," "Going on 13," "Marina of the Zabbaleen" and "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," which won the festival's award for best documentary feature. The film tells the story of a group of Liberian women who joined forces and stood up to the corrupt Charles Taylor regime during the country's violent civil war. "It says something about all women who are tired of war, but need to have it at their doorsteps to do something about it," notes Abigail Disney, the film's producer. "Even though they were afraid of being beaten and killed, they were able to collaborate and appeal to soldiers with the moral authority of mothers."

Strength of character and determination also define the women of "A Powerful Noise," which depicts three extraordinary women in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mali and Vietnam who lead battles against poverty, oppression, and ignorance.

But perhaps the film that has the most resonance for American audiences is "Lioness," which recounts the stunning experiences of five female soldiers in Iraq who, despite Department of Defense policy banning women from direct combat, have been serving on the front lines since 2003.

The film is an implicit call to action on behalf of these female soldiers, who are barely recognized and therefore receive neither appropriate training before their tours of duty nor needed services when they return to the States. But filmmakers Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers insist that they're making no statements about the Iraq War itself. "This is a human rights issue," Sommers says.

"Marina of Zabbaleen" also centers on human rights issues in its portrayal of the poverty-stricken Christian garbage collectors in the mountains of Cairo, the events unfolding through the eyes of a little girl.

"I wanted to introduce people to a world they know nothing about," filmmaker Engi Wassef says. "They're not scavengers; they're recycling. Without them Egypt would be drowning in garbage. I'd like audiences to leave the movie wanting to help these people do what they do, without having to live in squalor."

Telling an otherwise unknown story is also the mission of Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Dawn Valadez, both of who are self-proclaimed feminists, class-conscious Latinas and social activists. "Going on 13" enters the world of inner-city girls in California's Bay Area and follows them for four years, from ages 9-13.

"We wanted to show girls from that community who are not pregnant, not on drugs and not homeless, which is the way they are usually portrayed on the media," Guevara-Flanagan says. "They all come from intact families. By intact I mean healthy. Our goal was to show these girls and their families as regular people."

"And these girls have complex emotions," Valadez adds. "They have compelling stories to tell." So, too, do the seniors in "Gotta Dance," says producer-director Dori Berinstein. With lots of humor, the film chronicles the daily adventures of the New Jersey NETSationals, a senior dance team (12 women and one man) that performs at Net games. "I want my kids to see that you're never too old to follow you're dreams," Berinstein says. "And you don't put limitations on your future."

Without suggesting that women don't make terrific fictional features, the directors and producers assert that documentaries and female filmmakers are a particularly good match. "Making a documentary is about building relationships of trust, being able to listen and understand someone else's experience," McLagan says. "Women are trained to do that and are rewarded for it." There's also the dynamic between the documentary maker and her staff that may appeal to women, according to Wassef, who notes that some stereotypical generalities are not easily dismissed. "On a narrative feature the director directs the actors and then tells everyone else what to do.

There's a rigid hierarchy. On a documentary the crew is much smaller and the director is more attached to all the pieces. The documentary (by its very nature) creates a more equal playing field."

For Berinstein, the ability to edit and do other work at home is a major draw. But that's not her main reason for making documentaries, she emphasizes, nor are documentaries a perceived stepping stone to a career as a features director. "The documentary is an end in itself," she says. "When you make a documentary, you are in control. You choose the stories you want to tell and tell them on your terms."