5 Women Documentary Pioneers You Should Know

Women filmmakers have been instrumental to the documentary mode since the beginning.

women documentary pioneers

Women have been making movies since the beginning. I promise. We tend to think of history as a positive, linear progression from injustice to freedom. The first American film was made well before American women had the right to vote, for instance. Yet there were more women working in Hollywood during the Silent Era than at any time since. The Columbia University “Women Film Pioneers Project,” which launched last year, is the proof. Their database of women directors, writers, editors, camera operators and more is enormous and detailed, and I recommend getting lost in it for hours.

As it stands, the history of nonfiction cinema is dominated by male names, from Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov through the luminaries of vérité and Direct Cinema. Give or take a Leni Riefenstahl, the narrative of documentary film doesn’t often include the names of many women. Yet there were women documentary filmmakers from the very earliest days of the form, making important films that deserve to be included in the wider history of cinema. Not only in the silent era, but up through the turning point of the 1960s, women were producing forward-thinking, significant work. Here is a sampling, a list of five filmmakers whose work you should know.

Esfir Shub (1894–1959)

Shub moved to Moscow in the mid-1910s from a small town on what is now the border with Ukraine. She was only 23 when the Russian Revolution broke out and quickly became involved in the constructivist theater scene, collaborating with Vladimir Mayakovsky. In 1922 she took a job as an editor at Goskino, the Soviet-controlled film studio. She re-cut a number of Western films for release in the Soviet Union, including a complete re-edit of Charlie Chaplin’s Carmen, the first of his films to ever be seen in Russia. Further work included collaborations with Sergei Eisenstein: Shub helped write the shooting script of Strike and co-edited parts of October.

Her most significant single contribution to cinema would be a feature film of her own, however. 1927’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is considered the first compilation documentary, made entirely from pre-existing footage. It’s something of a miracle that it even exists, given how much was lost in the days after the revolution. Shub was required not only to edit, but also to discover and preserve the film. In a stark move away from Vertov’s observational style, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is the founding work of an entirely different way to conceive of nonfiction cinema.

Later films include Komsomol/Patron of Electrification (watch a clip here), Spain and Across the Araks, all of which advanced Soviet revolutionary principles in different contexts. She planned a film that would address the way proletarian revolution had liberated the women of Russia using a blend of documentary and fiction footage, entitled Women, but she was unable to complete it.

Yelizaveta Svilova (1900–1975)

Svilova is primarily famous because she was married to Vertov. Along with his brother, Mikhail Kaufman, they made up the “Council of Three” that produced the “Kino-Pravda” newsreels of the 1920s. As such, Svilova’s most important contribution is probably her role as supervising editor on Man with a Movie Camera.

However, as the climate in the Soviet Union changed and World War II began, Svilova become more active than Vertov. She directed three films just after the end of the war, heavily political documentaries focused on the Soviet role in the destruction of Nazism. The Fall of Berlin and The Nuremberg Trials are fascinating examples of 1940s propaganda in a unique moment of public solidarity between Communism and the Western Allies. The former in particular, constructed from footage taken by the film divisions of the armed forces, combines triumphant images of the victorious Red Army with the brutal realities of the demolished German capital in clever and unexpected ways.

Jenny Gilbertson (1902–1990)

Gilbertson was born Jenny Brown, in Glasgow. She grew up in Scotland but discovered filmmaking in journalism school in London. In 1931 she took her camera to the Shetland Islands, a remote archipelago that sits as far north as one can go in Great Britain. This trip would become her first film, a documentary about the people and landscape of the islands that she shot and edited entirely on her own. The final cut was shown later that year in Edinburgh, titled A Crofter’s Life in Shetland. John Grierson, founder of the British Documentary Film Movement, was impressed by her work and encouraged her to continue. She made three more short films, including Rugged Island: A Shetland Lyric. The “rugged” star of that film was John Gilbertson, a farmer who Jenny married shortly after. World War II, motherhood and the remoteness of Shetland brought a temporary end to Gilbertson’s career, but she resumed filmmaking in the 1960s.

A Crofter’s Life in Shetland is available to stream thanks to the National Library of Scotland. It is essentially a travelogue of a journey from the bottom of the Shetland Islands up to their most northerly point, Muckle Flugga Lighthouse. And like many travel films, it is something of a genre hybrid. It’s a nature film with a particular focus on the lives of birds and the crashing of waves. It’s an ethnography as well, following the lifestyle of those farmers and fishers who inhabit the islands. Gilbertson gives equal attention and respect to the work of men and women, herring fishing and spooling wool. The film’s exciting conclusion takes place on Up Helly Aa, a Viking-style winter festival celebrated by the islanders. Each image captures the windswept, solitary character of this place and a people who survive by living as one with the elements.

Shirley Clarke (1919–1997)

Shirley Clarke’s films are among the most essential nonfiction portraits of New York City, and for that matter America in general. Yet she began as a choreographer, the daughter of a Polish immigrant and an heiress. Her career didn’t take off so she changed gears in the early 1950s. Her passion for movement led not only to dance films like Dance in the Sun and A Moment of Love, but also the architectural Bridges Go-Round and Skyscraper. She was one of the founding members of The Film-Makers Cooperative along with Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage and others.

Her feature films often blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction, including The Connection and The Cool World. Other films fit more comfortably into the boundaries of documentary, like Ornette: Made in America and the Oscar-winning Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World. 1967’s Portrait of Jason, a milestone not only for documentary but also for queer cinema, manages to play with questions of reality and fiction without ever breaking from its simple format, edited from a 12-hour interview Clarke conducted with the enigmatic Jason Holliday.

Forough Farrokhzad (1935–1967)

Farrokhzad was a controversial cultural figure even before she directed her first and only film, 1962’s The House Is Black (pictured up above). She grew up in Tehran, her father an officer in the (then-Persian) army. She was married at 16 to satiricist Parviz Shapour, 11 years her senior. They had a child together but divorced just a few years later in 1954. Farrokhzad lost custody of her son and began living independently as a writer in Tehran. She published three volumes of poetry before trying her hand at filmmaking. Her last book was published in 1964. She died in a car crash in 1967.

The House Is Black is an ethnographic study of a leper colony in the city of Tabriz in northern Iran. Yet the word ethnography only goes so far, as the film combines nonfiction images with Farrokhzad’s more poetic inclinations. The stated mission is to eradicate the very idea of ugliness by humanizing these victims of disease, ostracized by society. Nothing is hidden from view as a result. Physical malformation is placed before the camera, as well as medical treatment. There are also images of prayer and scenes from the community’s small school. All of this is presented alongside a poetic voiceover, reminding the audience that even here there is a beauty and an art to human life.

The House Is Black is among the most significant films ever made in Iran and is considered a forerunner of the Iranian New Wave, which would itself redefine nonfiction cinema.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.