The practice of feminist documentary filmmaking, and the scholarship it evokes in response, chart out the major fault lines of feminist theorizing and political activism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Scholarship on early feminist documentary practice in the mid-twentieth century is told in two stories. In one, Third World–ist revolutionary cinema movements of the mid-twentieth century in East Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East created a “cinematic counter-telling” in which women and feminists were visible participants, and feminist concerns were framed in terms of an anticolonial message: “The Third World and its diasporas in the First World have rewritten histories as their own, taken control over their own images, spoken in their own voices, reclaiming and re-accentuating colonialism and its ramifications in the present in a vast project of remapping and renaming.”1 The other story told is that of a burgeoning feminist First World cinema movement examining the economic and social frameworks of the daily lives of women, and their identities, within a domestic context: “For the first time, ‘women's films’ denoted films made by and for, not just starring or about, women and emerging out of the political fever and radical demands of the women's movement…. Female audiences filled auditoriums, classrooms, and town halls as films made by women began to circulate as a result of newly formed distribution collectives such as New Day Films, Iris Films, and the Women's Film Coop.”2 

These stories of documentary film's emergence within different radical political movements illustrate how the first generation of global feminist documentary films created visible categories of women as filmmakers, distributors, and audiences, and defined them in explicitly political terms. Black women have used documentary from the 1960s onward to tell their own stories. Of Madeline Anderson's I Am Somebody (1969), documenting the 113-day strike of Black women hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, Jacqueline Bobo writes, “Anderson's documentary remains visible evidence of Black women's ability to resist inhumane treatment and … how the women began to recognize that they were valuable even as others were aligned in a concerted effort to prove that they were not.”3 

First-generation US filmmakers rooted in the women's liberation movement embraced documentary realism as a form that stood in contrast to the artificiality of studio feature filmmaking: “The ‘real’ in the Feminist Film Movement thus marks both an aesthetic experiment and a political commitment.”4 The “real” worked in service of “what was at the time a current and radical political argument concerning women's self-discovery as a route toward feminist collective identity and political action,” and the use of women's liberation activism and consciousness raising to do so.5 “Realism” as style and practice soon faced criticism from other feminists. While a few feminist theorists, such as Julia Lesage, Annette Kuhn, and B. Ruby Rich, pointed to the virtues of realist documentary, Claire Johnston, Elaine McGarry, and others argued that early feminist realist documentaries naively reinscribed the very ideological frameworks and relationships they sought to disrupt. They advocated for a women's “counter-cinema,” embracing the experimental as a means of introducing ideological alternatives.6 

By the turn of the twenty-first century, the debate had come full circle. Alexandra Juhasz and Shilyh Warren argued that feminist film theory's disavowal of the realist documentary in the 1980s and 1990s, encapsulated by the theoretical turn to psychoanalysis in the work of Laura Mulvey, allowed the political stakes of feminist documentary to fall away, oversimplifying the relationship between filmmaker, film, and the “real.” They pointed out that “realism” can and does “testify to alternative, marginal, subversive, or illegal realities; it can critique the notion of reality.”7 The “feminist realist debates” of the 1970s laid the foundation for First World feminist film theory, positioning realist American feminist documentary film as inferior to European feminist avant-garde filmmaking.8 

In the 1990s, bell hooks's intersectional analysis of the seminal LGBTQ documentary Paris Is Burning (1990), portraying the experiences of mostly Black and Hispanic queer men participating in drag ball culture in New York, claimed that the film idealizes white femininity. By positioning herself as “absent,” Jennie Livingston, a white queer filmmaker, engaged in appropriation, evoking the racism of historical ethnographic films.9 Judith Butler responded to hooks's critique, extending her exposition of performativity. Paris Is Burning, she wrote, “documents neither an efficacious insurrection, nor a painful resubordination…. This is an appropriation that seeks to make over the terms of domination, a making over that is itself a kind of agency, a power in and as discourse, in and as performance, which repeats in order to remake—and sometimes succeeds.”10 The spectator is central to both. For Butler, ambivalence about the performance and embodiment on view in the film is possible for the spectator. hooks, on the other hand, precludes such a disruption for the spectator as she recounts her experience of viewing the film: “I began to think that the many yuppie-looking, straight-acting, pushy, predominantly white folks in the audience were there because the film in no way interrogates ‘whiteness.’”11 

Also in the 1990s, postcolonial feminist documentary scholarship took up spectatorship and the documentary as ethnographic film, in the context of the transnational and warfare. Fatimah Tobing Rony looked back to Nanook of the North (1922), directed by Robert J. Flaherty, long considered the first ethnographic art and documentary film, which was distributed and utilized as an educational tool, to disrupt the construction of both the Inuit as primitive, and nonfiction cinema as a mode of representation that “could only be truthful,” in order to show “how the film represents a paradigm for a mode of representing indigenous peoples which parallels the romantic primitivism of modern anthropology.”12 Of the evolution of anthropological filmmaking, “Filmed ethnographic material, which was thought to ‘replicate natural perception,’ has now renounced its authority to replicate only to purport to provide adequate ‘data’ for the ‘sampling’ of culture,” wrote Trinh T. Minh-ha in 1993. “Thus, the recording and gathering of data and of people's testimonies are considered to be the limited aim of ‘ethnographic film.’” As such, “The claim to objectivity may no longer stand in anthropological circles, but its authority is likely to be replaced by the sacrosanct notion of the ‘scientific.’”13 Minh-ha, Tobing Rony, and other postcolonial feminist scholars of documentary film speak back to the “fathers of documentary” not only as the potential indigenous subjects of ethnographic film, but also as critical practitioners; Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) by Minh-ha is one example. “By putting representation under scrutiny, textual theory-practice has more likely helped to upset rooted ideologies by bringing the workings of their mechanics to the fore,” Minh-ha argues. “It contributes to the questioning of reformist ‘alternative’ approaches that never quite depart from the lineage of white- and male-centered humanism.”14 

This problematic is reinvigorated in feminist documentary scholarship on humanitarian and human rights documentary in the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, and the “digital.” Faye Ginsburg warns against overdetermining the digital with liberatory potential, through which one might remake the relationship between filmmaker, indigenous subject, and the “real.” “This techno-imaginary universe,” she argues, “reinscribes … the illusion that these remote ‘others’ exist in a time not contemporary with our own, effectively restratifying the world along lines of late modernity despite the utopian promises made by ‘digerati’ of the possibilities of a twenty-first-century McLuhanesque global village.”15 Pooja Rangan and Wendy S. Hesford are similarly wary of specific techniques of human rights documentary that are often attempts to center the indigenous subject, as part of a critical awareness of the limits of earlier ethnographic films.16 

The humanitarian and/or human rights documentary is tasked with eliciting the sympathies of the spectator, potentially mobilizing them to action. In this context, Rangan asks, “What does endangered life do for documentary?” and “What is the gift of documentary?”17 Rangan and Hesford both consider the Academy Award–winning documentary Born into Brothels (2004), which recognizes the agency of its Indian child subjects by allowing them to tell their own stories directly to the camera. And yet, Hesford argues, “their rhetorical agency is nonetheless framed by an unequal relationship between the filmmakers, the children, and their families.”18 The white “photojournalist turned advocate” and filmmaker Zana Briski is positioned “as savior,” using a universalizing liberal narrative of education and empowerment, as Briski tries to get all the children enrolled in a boarding school. In turn, the film presents the children's uneducated, superstitious, and sometimes violent families as obstacles to their social mobility, rather than as the consequence of systemic poverty.19 Rangan grapples with modes of documentary making designed to give over the act of representation to their subjects, including first-person voice-over, and the “humanitarian impulse of giving the camera to the other,” the “gift” of documentary, by asking what documentary solicits in return.20 Rangan, Hesford, and Ginsburg remain wary of the project of humanization and its implicit call for external intervention. The discussion of the digital and of human rights filmmaking in the twenty-first century continues to organize feminist scholarship on documentary around tensions that are familiar to and reverberate across feminist theorizations and activisms of the moment, through and about representation and power.


Ella Shohat, “Post-Third-Worldist Culture: Gender, Nation, and the Cinema” in Rethinking Third Cinema, ed. Anthony R. Guneratne and Wimal Dissanayake (New York: Routledge, 2006), 51.
Shilyh Warren, “By, For, and About: The ‘Real’ Problem in the Feminist Film Movement,” Mediascape 4, no. 2 (Fall 2008): See also Julia Lesage, “The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3, no. 4 (1978): 507–23; Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented (New York: Verso, 1994); Janet Walker and Diana Waldman, eds., Feminism and Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 38.
Warren, “By, For, and About,” 3.
Alexandra Juhasz, “They Said We Were Trying to Show Reality—All I Want to Show Is My Video: The Politics of Realist Feminist Documentary,” in Collecting Visible Evidence, ed. Jane Gaines and Michael Renov (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1999), 201. See also Warren, “By, For, and About,” 8.
Walker and Waldman, Feminism and Documentary, 30.
Juhasz, “They Said We Were Trying to Show Reality,” 195.
E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (London: Routledge, 1988), 125–41.
bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End, 1992), 147–53.
Judith Butler, “Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion,” in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, ed. Sue Thornham (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 392–93.
hooks, Black Looks, 149.
Fatimah Tobing Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 1996), 100.
Trin T. Minh-ha, “Documentary Is/Not a Name,” October 52 (1993): 102.
Ibid., 101.
Faye Ginsburg, “Rethinking Documentary in the Digital Age,” Cinema Journal 46, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 129.
Pooja Rangan, Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); Wendy S. Hesford, Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
Rangan, Immediations, 1.
Hesford, Spectacular Rhetorics, 160.
Ibid., 160–62.
Rangan, Immediations, 191–96.