Few things benefit a documentary more than a powerful female character spitting back in the face of opposition. There’s no shortage of that this month, with three major summer film festivals debuting strong women for the silver screen: the Human Rights Film Festival (June 13-23, New York), the AFI Docs (June 19-23, Washington DC and Maryland), and the AMFM Fest (June 13-16, Coachella Valley, CA). Their films feature girls in the slums of Kenya striving to make it in the fashion world, a young musician returning to Afghanistan, an Indian poetess confined for 25 years, and an idealistic young lawyer challenging a powerful Supreme Court nominee. These are our picks for the best women-oriented documentaries to keep an eye on.
ANITA, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
Anita opens with Ginni Thomas, the wife of Clarence Thomas, leaving Hill a voicemail asking her to apologize to her husband. It’s been two decades since a 35-year-old lawyer named Anita Hill testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, accusing him of sexual harassment, but her name still resonates today. “I don’t want this to be a political witch hunt,” Hill remembers about a confidential statement she sent in, which was soon leaked and became a nationwide scandal. “I sent it in...believing the senators would take it into account.” Hill’s deposition sent shock waves across the U.S., and despite failing to stop Thomas’s confirmation, paved the way for a national discussion of workplace abuse. “It was awful, it was disappointing,” Hill says. Her memories are spliced in with original testimony and news coverage from the senate hearings and guests like New Yorker writer Jane Meyer and New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, who co-wrote a book about the subject.
SALMA, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
For most of her life, Salma was treated as a prisoner in her extremely conservative Muslim community in India. At 13 years old, she was locked in a one-window room until she agreed to wed six years later. Her situation didn’t improve after the marriage, and she spent the next two decades confined to her house. But the story doesn’t end there. An enduring wordsmith, Salma would write and read anything she could get her hands on, and managed to smuggle some of her poems out of the village and into the hands of a publisher. Five years later, the woman who once feared crossing the street had became one of India’s most celebrated poets and head of her village. Salma follows the poetess as she returns to the town and family that once held her hostage. “It seems to me that throughout the world women have had very little influence on 'tradition,' and often have most to gain from challenging culture and long-held beliefs,” says filmmaker Kim Longinotto. And she hopes the audience can relate. “It's about the ‘knots and ties’ of families—about daring to be different—so I hope it can be a universal experience.”
WE CAME HOME, AFI DOCS
Twenty-two-year-old Ariana Delawari returned to a post-9/11 Afghanistan in search of her heritage. For the next 10 years, the young Afghan-American artist traveled back and forth between the country she had never known and her hometown of Los Angeles. In 2007, as the Taliban resurgence threatened her family, Delawari decided to make an album, "Lion of Panjshir," in Kabul. Both personal and historical, Delawari’s story of returning and connecting to a turbulent, unknown homeland is told as the film weaves handheld family film, news coverage of the Soviet invasion, her family’s narration, and footage of Afghanistan’s current state. Delawari’s activism also eclipses the camera. Last week, she launched “#InspirePeace,” an art campaign aiming to spread a message of peace with an online campaign. We Came Home has already won the Grand Jury Prize for Best International Documentary at its world premiere in Sao Paulo.
GET TOGETHER GIRLS, AMFM
During her month filming in the slums of Kenya, Vanessa Crocini left the movie crew behind and got up close and personal with the women behind Get Together Girls, an organization training street girls to design and sew clothes. It’s impossible not to be impressed by Grace Orsolato, the determined Italian founder of the project, or charmed by the aspiring fashion designers. The film starts with the girls describing their lives before “GtoG:” sleeping in corridors, sniffing glue, begging for food. “You don’t have food you don’t have shelter, you are just there,” one remembers. Each girl has a heartbreaking story told as the characters are introduced: one ran away from an arranged marriage and circumcision, another is a single mother whose boyfriend died a month after her daughter’s birth. “No people were interested with us and now they see we work hard and will go far,” the young woman tells the camera.