Women Dominate One Academy Award Category. Here’s WhyRoundup
tags: film, documentaries, Academy Awards, womens history
David Resha is associate professor of film and media studies at Oxford College of Emory University. He is the author of the book The Cinema of Errol Morris.
Women finally have a more central place in the Oscars lineup this year. Seventy women received a record 76 Academy Award nominations, 32 percent of all nominations. And for the first time, two women were nominated for the directing category at the same time: Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” Women also directed a record 27 percent of the total eligible films for Best Picture.
Women actually dominate in the “documentary feature” category, however. Four out of the five nominated documentary features are either directed or co-directed by women. The same percentage was true last year. For decades, in fact, women have fared much better at being nominated in the documentary feature category compared with the directing and best picture categories.
Of course, there is still plenty of work for the documentary industry to do to recruit more women directors. But they’ve been much better at celebrating women than the mainstream categories. Why? Because from the beginning, women shaped the very foundation of the genre.
Documentary film frequently evokes ideas of masculinity. Ken Burns and Michael Moore may be the most recognizable names in American documentary filmmaking. And one of documentary film’s most recognizable stylistic hallmarks, the “voice of God” style of voice-over narration, has been almost exclusively male, from early newsreels to David Attenborough’s wildlife films to Morgan Freeman’s role as contemporary documentary’s voice du jour.
But women have long taken leadership roles in documentary filmmaking. Documentaries are generally much less expensive to produce than fiction films, meaning there are lower barriers for entry. Expensive fiction films tend to hire “reliable” moneymaking talent on both sides of the camera, which makes it much more difficult to break into the industry, especially as a director.
The lower barrier of entry enabled women to assert their voices, talents and perspectives in the documentary world from the very beginning. Robert Flaherty, director of the first commercially successful feature-length documentary, “Nanook of the North” (1922), is often considered to be the “father” of documentary film. But his wife, Frances Flaherty, played a key role in her husband’s films, at times adopting the role of director, editor, producer, distributor and promoter of these historically important documentaries. She even earned the recognition of the Academy with a co-nomination with her husband for best original story for their documentary “Louisiana Story” in 1942.