Are Women’s Personal Films Still Political?

By Sara Kaye Larson

first comes love 1

While not a female-exclusive filmmaking form, the personal, or autobiographical, documentary is a significant genre to women filmmakers. The rising popularity of the form coincided with the second-wave feminist movement, where women sought to transform their tradition of self-documentation (diaries, journals, letters, family albums, etc) and insert themselves into the the methods of representation from which they had been long omitted. For women, controlling, creating, documenting and sharing their personal experiences on film was flat-out revolutionary (see early Newsreel films like The Women’s Film, Make Out and Janie’s Janie).

The genre has continued to be a part of the nonfiction canon, as we see a new crop of personal documentaries every year, and the personal film has continued to be re-interpreted and expanded. It is interesting to look at where female filmmakers have taken the genre and equally as interesting to examine how they are being received. It is still quite a revolutionary concept, to turn the camera on oneself, especially when it flies in the face of cultural expectations.

An example of a classic autobiographical investigation, Nina Davenport’s First Comes Love was released on HBO last summer. Davenport turns the camera on herself, her friends and her family as she goes through the very personal process of deciding whether or not to become a mother, even though she is single, 40 and lives in a one bedroom apartment. We witness her having uncomfortable conversations with her dad and convincing a friend to donate sperm, and we watch as her neediness nearly drives her best friend away. No moment is spared.

And some people feel pretty uncomfortable watching it. Criticisms of the film, namely from male reviewers, repeatedly use the terms “narcissistic,” “self-absorbed,” and “self-obsessed.” A film professor friend of mine screened the film for her class, and a male student told her, “No one needs to see that kind of stuff.” While we are all products of pregnancy, we seem to have psychological barriers regarding the topic — and female experiences in general — that cannot be crossed.

A female reviewer (Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times) wrote that the film isn’t good because Davenport neglected to “get other perspectives” than those of her friends and family. Demanding a change that would not only make the film something other than autobiography, the reviewer puts Davenport to the impossible task of being everything to everyone. It is a common burden of a minority filmmaker and the risk of creating a personal investigative film. The message is clear: there is only so much screen time, and by telling your story you are excluding others. Audiences want to know: why are you so special?

We like nonfiction films about women in trouble — women with cancer, women in sex trades, women in third world countries, etc. — but as a straight personal investigation, in which women turn the camera on themselves and highlight their own experiences, we still see women’s autobiographical film as a vehicle for the most abominable of all female sins: selfishness.

It’s an easy fall-back to criticize an autobiographical film as self-involved, because by definition it is. Davenport’s mistake may have been in using more conventional documentary techniques. Her film is mostly linear, there are no special effects, no reenactments. It’s all her, in all her sometimes charming and sometimes needy humanness. She doesn’t question or contemplate truth, she shows her experience.


The style contrasts with other recent, acclaimed personal documentaries made by female filmmakers, like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Petra Costra’s Elena. These films, each storytelling achievements in their own right, are praised for their ethereal fractured dreamlike qualities. Critics use terms like “mesmerizing,” “artistic truths,” “intimate meditation” and “dreamy” to explain why the films are so good.

This more stylistic personal documentary uses narrative and art-film techniques — playing with time, reality, and reenactment. The style concedes to being uncertain of the truth. Could this passive telling be more palatable for audiences? Women can tell their stories as long as they acknowledge they are uncertain?

The term “messy” shows up in several positive reviews for Stories We Tell. Davenport’s personal story is by all accounts messy, but it isn’t hyper-stylized. Maybe we want messy, but we need interesting lighting or actors acting out self-involved conversations? The genre-blending type of “messy” nonfiction filmmaking might alleviate the burden of the minority filmmaker, because it is a fragmented dream, a “meditation.” They aren’t expected to interview everyone else who ever had the same experience. They don’t have to apologize for telling their story and thus aren’t discounted for being selfish.

Thanks to filmmakers like Davenport and Polley keeping up the tradition and pushing the boundaries of the genre, the personal film continues to be an important medium for women’s stories. Whether it is still revolutionary is up for debate. We should be aware of the terms used to criticize and praise the efforts of female filmmakers because it says a lot about our cultural expectations and acceptance. The critical language praising the “messy,” dreamier works seem rather similar to idealized female qualities. When it comes to women’s personal films do we prefer a dreamy, fractured lullaby over self-assured raw truth?