By Cynthia L. Cooper
Monday, March 26, 2001
Deborah Oppenheimer and Tracy Seretean are part of a growing number of filmmakers who are changing the way that the world sees, hears and receives women's stories.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Deborah Oppenheimer on Sunday evening became one of the rare women to win an Oscar for her work behind the camera. Oppenheimer (along with Mark Harris)won for "Into the Arms of Strangers, Stories of the Kindertransport," in the feature-length documentary category. Oppenheimer dedicated her Academy Award to survivors, including her mother, of the 10,000 Jewish children brought to Britian prior to World War II.
Tracy Seretean was the winner for the best documentary short for "Big Mama," which she described as a story of grandmothers struggling to raise a generation of children whose parents abandoned them.
The two winners are part of a growing number of women filmmakers using the highly personal and demanding craft to educate and energize their audiences.
For example, Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir were making final preparations in New York recently for their fourth trip to Kosovo, where they are documenting the impact of war on women who fled and returned.
Olafsdottir, surveying two digital cameras, batteries and supplies, says: "What they have to go through when they go home can be pretty banal, but pretty horrible," describing an elderly woman raising 19 orphaned grandchildren and another woman, a victim of rape ostracized in her own village.
The filmmakers, who previously made "The Brandon Teena Story," are heading to isolated towns in bitterly cold weather and uncertain political conditions. But, says Muska, if it were not for her lens-focused activism, she would be in a different business altogether.
Women documentary filmmakers are changing the way that the world sees, hears and receives women's stories. "We get letters from people who say, 'This film changed my life,'" says Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies in New York, a feminist non-profit that distributes 500 movies by and about women, including hundreds of documentaries.
Although no woman has ever won an Academy Award as director of a "Hollywood" feature film, women documentarians have managed to get a toehold on the stage. Prior to Sunday night, only 10 women-- a mere 13 percent--had won major documentary awards since the category was created 50 years ago, and Barbara Kopple scored twice with "Harlan County U.S.A." in 1976 and "American Dream" in 1990.
This year, two women's films competed for the best full-length documentary. Oppenheimer won, but "Long Night's Journey Into Day" about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Deborah Hoffmann and Frances Reid)was stiff competition.
The golden statue is just a distant glimmer for most in the expanding opus of women's work.
Of the dozens of films in the 10-day international festival of Women in the Director's Chair in Chicago, which ended Sunday, none is likely to be an Oscar nominee, admits Sabrina Craig, program director.
"This festival puts a lot of emphasis on how compelling the story is, how much it deserves and needs to be seen," says Craig. Selections are made by a 75-member community panel of women. One hot choice: "I Was Born a Black Woman," by Maria-Luisa Mendonca, a documentary about Benedita da Silva, the first Afro-Brazilian woman in the Brazilian Senate. "Lively," says Craig.
By capturing women's reality, documentary filmmakers are generating conversations about women's concerns. The duo of Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz was able to get a Public Broadcasting System slot for "The Abortion Pill" about the French abortifacient RU-486, at the same time that abortion rights advocates were struggling to make the pill available in the United States. "We do a lot of research to find our story," says Rosenblatt. "We're very much aware of the impact on public policy."
In the recently released "On Hostile Ground," directors Liz Mermin and Jenny Raskin draw attention to the decline in the number of abortion providers by following medical practitioners in bullet-proof vests and out-of-the-way locations. The movie has a week-long theatrical showing in Manhattan, April 6 to 12, with proceeds to benefit two pro-choice organizations.
The potential to educate and inform is at the heart of much of women's documentary filmmaking. Topics range from toxic chemical spills to breast cancer, African American women's self-image to Latina roots.
"A lot of people don't pick up a book anymore," says Dorothy Thigpen, executive director of Third World Newsreel in New York, which distributes films by people of color, 40 percent of which are documentaries. "A film, if shown, is going to touch a lot more people and have much more impact."
Barbara Hammer's 30-year videography is crammed with challenges to the status quo. Many of her 80 short and seven feature-length films, including "Nitrate Kisses," explore lesbian sexuality, history or rights. "I work on a theory of activism," says Hammer, who experiments constantly with form. "If you activate the body, that will stimulate the brain. And when they leave the theater, people will take action."
Working solo, in pairs or with production teams, women filmmakers wear multiple hats, and undertake the arduous tasks of grant writing, fund-raising and finding distribution outlets.
After completing "900 Women," six film portraits that demolish the stereotypes of women inmates in a southern Louisiana prison, 23-year-old director Laleh Khadivi hoped the tales of domestic abuse, family crises and substance abuse could be heard by others similarly affected. Now, with foundation support, co-producer Ava Berkofsky is writing a study guide and booking a road tour to 10 states and 25 prisons. "Documentaries are more than entertainment," she explains, "they're tools for discussion."
Cynthia L. Cooper is a free-lance writer in New York City.
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