One interesting, under-reported trend in modern cinema is the increasing prevalence of the female documentarian. Whereas the statistics for female directors in Hollywood at large are predictably depressing, with only three wide-release movies in 2013 directed or co-directed by a woman, women are quietly producing incredible work in the documentary sector. In my home country (the UK) we’ve recently seen powerful, original, brilliant work by Carol Morley (Dreams of a Life), Jeanie Finlay (Sound It Out), Clio Barnard (The Arbor), Beeban Kidron (InRealLife)… seriously, if you wanted to use this post as a set of NetFlix recommendations, you wouldn’t be disappointed.

Want evidence of how accepted and respected female directors have become in the documentary sector? The Directors’ Guild of America, an organisation that you will be surprised to learn is a guild of American directors, just published its list of nominees for Best Documentary. They include two men – Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) and Zachary Heinzerling (Cutie and the Boxer) – and three women. The actress Sarah Polley’s film Stories We Tell, about discovering an old family secret, is the most high-profile film on the list, but there’s also Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, about the unrest in Egypt, and Lucy Walker’s extreme sports film The Crash Reel.

A surprise omission, and one that I suspect the Oscars will honour, is Blackfish, the film exposing conditions at SeaWorld. That one was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. A woman? Uh huh.


My experience at the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival and Doc Accelerator program was incredible. I learned a lot, and attended workshops that I otherwise would not have been able to afford. However, one thing did stick out in the back of my mind throughout the festival: how do issues of accessibility and class relate to the film industry?

I certainly acknowledge my own privilege in my goals to enter the film industry. Not only was I incredibly lucky to be chosen to take part in the Accelerator program, but I am also lucky to own a smart phone, laptop, and decent camera – the 3 things you really need to market yourself and start a passion project.

It seems to me that the only way to break into the film industry is to just do it. I must have heard “just do it” a hundred times. And fair enough. ‘Just doing it’ shows initiative, drive, and determination. It means you’re here to stay, and it’s your way of paying your dues and earning a place among the greats.

But what does “just do it” actually mean in terms of accessibility? Is it fair to assume that we all begin at the same starting point?

Of course not.

Some of the factors that jumped into my head: student debt and the obscene cost of living in any urban city with a film community.

It made me a bit sad to hear this conservative ideological rhetoric of ‘just do it and work hard enough until you succeed’ be so prevalent in the left-leaning arena of filmmaking and storytelling. In present day, it doesn’t matter if you have initiative, drive, and determination if you can’t afford the technology necessary to ‘just do it.’

One of the speakers I had the opportunity of listening to joked that us Canadian artists were too used to being supported by government grants, that now that these funds no longer exist, we don’t know how to adapt. It was true; I hadn’t really sat down and thought about these cuts to arts funding until I decided to aspire to be a documentary filmmaker (selfish, I know).

This made me think a lot about values, culture, and art. Take the Vancouver olympics, for example. The mascots, medals, and celebrations are used to exemplify the host country’s culture. All of the 2010 items embodied indigenous visual art, dance, literature, and imagery. This shows that art gives us life, and we indulge in this to celebrate. Why is it that we refuse to invest in what we define ourselves by?

And if art is unaccessible, who gets to define who we are?

It is horrifying to think that the arts, with all of the countless benefits, can be used by the rich to exploit the poor. This is not a new concept. You see it in instances like the Vancouver olympics, and you see it in documentary filmmaking.

For example, quite a few films I saw at this year’s festival (while absolutely beautiful, in both story and visuals), did possess a bit of a white saviour complex or romanticism of the developing world. What does the telling of these stories mean for the host communities once the cameras are turned off? What happens after a piece of art is created, to those who are used to create it?

My best attempt is to start at the beginning: with the filmmakers. I recognize that I am no exception to this cycle. I still want to be a filmmaker. No, I don’t have the best camera, but I do have something I can use to get started, which is more than a lot of other people.

However, if more people could control the production of artistic content, then a higher number of opinions, standpoints, and experiences can be more authentically integrated into not only the artistic definition of a time and place in history, but also to the future of these societies.

One of the most important things I learned in grad school was the power of listening and taking a step back. How do we do that as filmmakers, especially when for those who have a head start? How can anyone become a filmmaker? How do we make filmmaking a viable dream for anyone?

One solution I learned about was film co-ops, where you can pay a small membership fee to access film equipment. An example of these is LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto).

While I still don’t know much about them, perhaps this is one way we can increase access to expensive equipment that serves as the biggest barrier to filmmaking.