Cinema as Resistance: Women Who Speak Out Through Film

Sabrina Luppi
7 min readApr 5, 2017

Originally written for The New Grls Club

It feels like a lot of people are finally beginning to recognize the problems with our society and government that many communities within America have been fighting against since it was founded. Government and big business “overlooking” treaty rights and general public interest for the sake of profit is not new. Police brutality, especially as it affects communities of color, is not new. Misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia and general unfounded hatred of “the other” have been curses on humanity for as far back as our records go.

The actions of our government and other oppressive systems over the past… well, honestly forever have been motivating communities and leaders to mobilize for just as long. If the actions of our new administration have just recently begun to mobilize you, you are (clearly) not alone. The uprising that is taking place nationwide is powerful, and we have to keep it up.

While marching, contacting representatives and general civil disobedience have proven to be powerful tools of resistance. I think it’s useful to also recognize the impact that cinema can have in educating and inspiring movements. From fictional narratives that serve as metaphors for our society to documentaries that bring to light the perspectives we weren’t exposed to in school, films have been known to help us see things more clearly. [Side note: this just reminded me of one of my favorite quotes, “There is no better way to exercise consciousness than movie-watching, a recursive, reflexive mirroring loop that reveals us to ourselves.” — Jason Silva].

So this week I wanted to share with you some films made by women that express female perspectives on social and political environments. Some of these directors documented movements, some tell the stories of activist leaders, and some told fictional stories of powerful female characters. Maybe this will inspire you to create some art of your own or to support the people who are already working on projects like these. Either way, the act of listening to and sharing non-hegemonic perspectives is itself an act of resistance.

Daisies (1966)
Directed by Vera Chytilová

Vera was no stranger to censorship in her country of Czechoslovakia. Her graduate film, The Ceiling (1962) was about empty materialism and exploitation in the fashion industry and prompted an audience member to proclaim that, “Such a film should not be made…”. Daisies was so shocking to the government that they banned it from theaters.

The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Directed by Cheryl Dunye

Dunye’s term for her original genre that combines real-life with recreations and real people with actors is ‘Dunyementary’. The Watermelon Woman falls into this category. The film follows Dunye’s journey in creating a documentary on a 1930s actress known as The Watermelon Woman. On the way she uncovers and explores some of the important contributions African Americans made to cinema while also expressing her perspective as a black, lesbian filmmaker.

Daring to Resist: Three Women Face the Holocaust (1999)
Directed by Martha Goell Lubell and Barbara Attie

This documentary, produced by National Geographic, tells the stories of three women who, as teenagers in 3 Nazi-occupied countries, resisted the round-ups of their Jewish communities. They did everything from distributing resistance newspapers to leading underground groups that smuggled Jews across the border.

The Fifth Reaction (2003)
Vakonesh Panjom
Directed by Tahmineh Milani

Milani’s film aims to empower women to fight for their rights in its examination of a female’s role in a patriarchal society. Main character Fereshteh faces sexism and injustice following the accidental death of her husband. She loses her home and her children but tries to fight back with the help of supportive women.

Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004)
Directed by Shola Lynch

Lynch’s film follows the career of Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman in America who also ran for president in 1972. The documentary chronicles not only Shirley’s story but also the impact she had as she fought for equality and promoted public engagement in politics.

Trudell (2005)
Directed by Heather Rae

This documentary tells the story of Native American poet, activist, and leader of the American Indian Movement, John Trudell. Due to the unmitigated erasure Native Americans have faced this film brings much-needed attention to the resistance that has been ongoing on our continent for centuries.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008)
Directed by Gini Reticker

Reticker’s documentary shows the power of women joining together in non-violent protest. As civil war ravaged Liberia, Christian and Muslim women gathered separately to organize for peace. Eventually, the groups, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, banded together and successfully resisted.

Last Call at the Oasis (2011)
Directed by Jessica Yu

Multiple sources are now reporting that water may become unaffordable within the next five years. This is one big issue that the #NoDAPL water protectors are trying to educate us about (s/o to treaty rights, but that’s another story). Jessica Yu was one of the people trying to warn us all years ago with this documentary on the global water crisis.

A Red Girl’s Reasoning (2012)
Directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Tailfeathers created this film in response to Canada’s increasing rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women. This is not just a Canadian issue, a study released by the DOJ in May 2016 found that of the 2000 Alaskan and Native American women surveyed 84% had experienced violence. Tailfeather’s film fights back with the story of an ass-kicking Indigenous woman who takes on the attackers of other women.

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2013)
Directed by Grace Lee

While filming another project in which filmmaker Grace Lee interviewed other women named Grace Lee from various backgrounds, Lee met Boggs and decided her story warranted a whole documentary of its own. It’s the story of a Chinese-American activist and philosopher who was part of the civil rights and Black Power movements.

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2013)
Directed by Shola Lynch

Shola returns to the list with the story of another incredible activist, Angela Davis. Angela’s influence is still at work today as she continues to educate packed crowds, including a speech at the Women’s March. Her story isn’t over, but this documentary details some of the astonishing events that contributed to her worldwide recognition today.

Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (2013)
Directed by Kitty Green

Green’s documentary focuses on FEMEN, the feminist activist group from Ukraine, who she followed for over a year. The group is known around the world for organizing topless protests in defense of women’s rights which were met with harassment and arrests.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (2013)
Directed by Madeleine Sackler

Sackler’s story, created with smuggled footage, describes the level of censorship artists in the country face and chronicles the resistance movement. She follows the members of the Belarus Free Theater, who face imprisonment or worse as they stage underground performances that examine ‘taboo’ topics like sexual orientation and suicide.

Scheherazade’s Diary (2013)
Directed by Zeina Daccache

“Scheherazade in Baabda,”is a drama/theater therapy project for female inmates in Lebanon. Daccache documented their 10-month program, leading to a play in front of an audience at the prison. The women, labeled as criminals, share their stories of abuse, trauma, and deprivation. The film reflects the failures of all oppressive societies that lead victims to crime.

Sepideh (2013)
Directed by Berit Madsen

At 16, Sepideh is already passionate about astronomy and dreams of floating in space. As a young woman in Iran, her family’s expectations and traditions clash with her goals. Madsen followed Sepideh for two years documenting her struggle, ambition, and major life-changing moments.

A Quiet Inquisition (2014)
Directed by Alessandra Zeka and Holen Sabrina Kahn

Even the trailer for this documentary, which follows OBGYN Dr. Carla Cerrato in Nicaragua, is an important message regarding the dangers that regulating women’s bodies impose on us. Stories like these emphasize the NECESSITY of pro-choice legislature to protect the right of women to make their own decisions. With so much negative propaganda surrounding Planned Parenthood and what it means to be pro-choice, these stories are important in educating people about the reality of the situation.

The Supreme Price (2014)
Directed by Joanna Lipper

Lipper follows Hafsat Abiola, who became determined to make sure her parents’ pro-democracy message would be heard after her father’s presidential victory was annulled and her mother was assassinated. “If what they were hoping to do is silence the voices of Nigeria’s women who are demanding change, I would make sure that my mother’s voice was not made silent by even one day.”

Portrait of an Indigenous Woman (2015)
Directed by Caroline Monnet

Ten women try to define what it means to be an Indigenous woman. In a March 2016 interview, Monnet said, “I think, as filmmakers, that’s our power — to make the stories that we want to tell and that we feel important to tell.” I wholeheartedly agree. As audiences, our power is in seeking perspectives that society has attempted again and again to drown out.

13th (2016)
Directed by Ava DuVernay

DuVernay’s documentary gained a lot of attention this year for answering the question: did the 13th amendment really end slavery? Ava presents the strong argument, supported by what she described in an NPR interview as “nuanced knowledge”, that slavery continues today under the guise of mass incarceration. This is an immediate must-watch if you haven’t already.

We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice (2016)
Directed by Alanis Obomsawin

This is by no means an extensive list. I encourage everyone to actively seek out films and stories about issues that interest you. There are PLENTY. As intersectional feminists, we must also be committed to educating ourselves and others about the problems that don’t directly affect us. People all over the world are trying to get out important messages through film. Keep in mind the value of supporting their cause either by sharing/promoting, contributing financially or even seeking a cast or crew role. And feel free to add to the list in the comments!