The gendered experiences of women distinctly impact them wherever they go. One of the more salient, visible places that women use their experiences, talent and vision to assert themselves is in the art world. Art grants its practitioners and participants the opportunity to engage with human experiences similar to and unlike their own in deliberated, crafted ways. Women artists continue to use their ingenuity to create art that shapes the world we live in, therein making more room for women to embody their own truths in ways they see fit.
In celebration of art and self-actualizing women, here are 10 documentaries that honor the journeys of women artists!
Making sense of one’s past can be both a lifelong undertaking and a thorny proposition. In Shirkers, novelist Sandi Tan accomplishes that trickiest of endeavors, directing a documentary about herself that isn’t cloying or cringe-worthy. Quite the contrary, her movie is refreshingly candid and self-critical: She may be the star of the show, but she has a story to tell and the right perspective to frame it properly. Tan narrates the documentary as a memory piece, recounting her childhood in Singapore with her best friend Jasmine, where they were the two cool kids in their pretty square school, dreaming of being filmmakers and leaving their mark. To further that ambition, they collaborated with another friend, Sophia, on a surreal road movie called Shirkers, which would be directed by Tan’s mentor, an older teacher named Georges who carried himself as someone who knew his way around a movie camera. In her late teens and perhaps smitten with this man who showed her such attention—the documentary is cagey on the subject—Tan was intoxicated by the rush of making a film that she wrote and would be the star of. So how come we’ve never seen it? The documentary traces the strange, mysterious journey of the project, which was waylaid by Georges sneaking off with the reels of film with a vague promise of finishing the work. That never happened, and 20 years later Tan decides to open those old wounds, connecting with her old friends and trying to determine what became of Georges. Scenes from the unfinished film appear in Shirkers, tipping the audience off to the fact that there will be a happy-ish resolution to Tan’s quest. But the documentary ends up being less about tracking down the film canisters than being an exploration of nostalgia, friendship and the allure of mentors. Tan is lively, self-effacing company throughout—her voice has just the right sardonic tinge—but her visits with Jasmine and Sophia are particularly lovely and illuminating, suggesting how lifelong pals can see us in ways that we cannot. —Tim Grierson
In the opening to “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” a classic song by British punk band X-Ray Spex, Anglo-Somali singer Poly Styrene asserts that “people think little girls should be seen and not heard.” Her words are a salient reminder that despite the ever-expanding presence of women in the rock world, women in typically masculinized music scenes (like in the rest of society) are often expected to be mere ornaments. Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché spotlights the monumental influence Poly Styrene’s presence had on punk music and her legacy of leveraging punk music to place pressure on the subjugation of women everywhere. The film is propelled by the reflections of fellow punk rockers like Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna and the narration of Ruth Negga. But the narrative charge is led by Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell, who travels three continents and reflects upon her mother’s personhood to bridge the gaps between Poly Styrene the performer and Marianne Joan Elliott-Said the woman and mother.
Beautiful Losers is a 2008 documentary that explores the work of artists from the San Francisco Bay Area Mission School Movement, an art movement of the ‘90s and ‘00s that was marked by its street art aesthetics. The film takes its name from the exhibition and related book which compiled the work of artists such as photographer Cheryl Dunn, filmmakers Mike Mills and Harmony Korine, and visual artists like the late Margaret Kilgallen. While Beautiful Losers shifts its focus between artists, an especially stirring segment of the film is dedicated to Kilgallen, whose folk-inspired contemporary paintings and murals captured women. Kilgallen’s fascination in painting the profiles of women swimmers, bike riders and more was tacit to her interest in “chang[ing] the emphasis of what’s important when looking at women” and drawing attention to “what [women] can do and how smart they are,” rather than “how beautiful” or “how thin you are.” Her interest in how women are visually received also led Kilgallen to dabble in freight train graffiti, where she’d tag the profiles of women she drew with the name Matokie Slaughter, a nod to one of Kilgallen’s favorite women banjo players. Kilgallen’s legacy is wrapped up in her stunning works, but also in the lore of her short life. Kilgallen opted out of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with breast cancer so that she could carry her pregnancy to term—dying three weeks after her daughter, with fellow artist Barry McGee, was born.
Now one of the oldest contemporary artists living and working today, Carmen Herrera is, without a doubt, an absolute legend, though you might not know her name. As a Cuban-American painter, she was a pioneer in the abstract-minimalism movement in the ‘40s and ‘50s but was often overlooked (as many great artists were during that time) because of her race, gender or nationality. Because of that, she didn’t reach international and artist success until very late in life, and I’d like to think this documentary is a well-deserved celebration of Herrera’s radiant and revolutionary vision—and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Filmed shortly before her 100th birthday, this film follows Herrera as she reflects on her life-long career and goes about her daily life—a strict schedule of sketching and painting. The 100 Years Show is the ultimate introduction to Herrera’s pioneering fusion of geometric minimalism and striking simplicity, and the woman behind the vision.—Brent Taalur Ramsey
As an artist, Lily Yeh believes art to be a human right. As a community organizer, she believes it can bring people together and mend the broken spirit. Directed by Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub, The Barefoot Artist reflects on Yeh’s life as an artist, from her childhood in China to her home in Philadelphia, and the communities she has impacted over the years. Using art as a method of community building, Yeh and her nonprofit Barefoot Artists have helped countless impoverished communities in Africa, India and around the world. This film traces her years of service to helping these communities and enacting social change, as well as the personal struggles she’s faced over the years; it’s an honest and moving story of a woman who has spent her entire life using art as a vehicle for good.—Brent Taalur Ramsey
Nina Simone’s 1969 live album Black Gold features a quintessentially beautiful albeit haunting cover of the Fairport Convention song “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?” While What Happened, Miss Simone? does well to capture Simone’s life from childhood until her slip into relative obscurity and ultimate death in 2003, her somber rendering of this song encapsulates the tonal highs and lows of the documentary and of Simone’s life itself. What Happened, Miss Simone? investigates the feeling of responsibility Simone felt as a Black artist to reflect the tumult of racial injustice in America and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. While Simone’s formidable ability to capture the tenacity of Black American lives resulted in covers like “Strange Fruit” and originals like “Mississippi Goddam,” the latter of which was a protest song in response to the brutal murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evars, it also engulfed her life in a barely shakable sorrow.
This, alongside the particular scrutiny Simone faced as a Black artist, the cognitive dissonance of being loved by white audiences when she was performing but being disdained for her Blackness and related politics, and the abuse she faced from her husband and her lifelong battles with mental illness collectively marked Simone’s life with difficulty. This context, that the film’s director Liz Garbus offers through the film’s sequencing, further reinforces how performance space was Simone’s saving grace. But the very temporality of the stage, of an adoring audience, spiritually shackled Simone to it in a way that sometimes resulted in a feeling of freedom and other times stoked a deep sadness that became the singer’s shadow.
The life of Joan Didion, the California writer behind sayings like “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” and books like Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking is the subject of this Netflix documentary. Didion’s filmmaker nephew, Griffin Dunne, directed the film which mixes interviews, readings and archival footage to relay how writing punctuated Didion’s life and how her writing (like her prominent coverage of the Tate-LaBianca murders) punctuated the shifting cultural life of American society in the ‘60s and ‘70s in turn. The film does well to honor Didion’s voice and her distinct writing style, which is marked by its ruminative, personal nature. But it also honors how heavily the latter portion of Didion’s life has been marked by her navigation of grief related to the deaths of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana Roo. Rather than comfortably slumping into that unexamined place of praise that simpler biographical films sit within, Dunne finds the right balance of situating Didion as the talented writer she is and of characterizing Didion the individual, the Californian, the widow, the mother—all through her writing and her own contemporary words.
German director Wim Wenders’ 3D documentary tribute to the German dancer, choreographer and teacher Pina Bausch began in the mid-eighties when he saw Bausch’s Café Müller for the first time. Afterwards, he suggested to her that they one day make a film together. It was not until 2009, however, that this dream really began to take shape. After working with Bausch for almost half a year, and just days before they were supposed to begin shooting the first 3D rehearsal, Bausch suddenly and unexpectedly died. After a mourning period, and encouraged by friends and family of Bausch, Wenders decided to forge ahead with the film, believing that Pina’s life and personality were so tied up in her work and her dancers that, through the presentation of four of her choreographed productions, he could pay proper homage to this influential artist. Pina shows excerpts from performances of Café Müller, Le Sacre du printemps, Vollmond and Kontakthof—both in the theater and outside of it—mixed with archival footage of Bausch and solo performances done by her dancers. The 3D approach of the film, rather than being a distraction, allows the audience to experience art, life and the blurring between the two in a completely new and unique way. As a result, Pina is an elegant and poetic demonstration of everything 3D technology is capable of. This is 3D at its most sophisticated and subtle—no massive explosions, no aliens or CGI, just beautifully choreographed and exceptionally performed modern dance. —Emily Kirkpatrick
Asif Kapadia’s Amy is about powerhouse singer Amy Winehouse and her relationship to music and drugs before and after her career’s high. In an interview with VICE, Kapadia speaks about a central conflict between Winehouse’s pop persona and her music. When discussing “Rehab,” one of Winehouse’s most popular songs, Kapadia explains that “it’s actually a cry for help, but it just became a song that everyone danced to.” Therein lies the film. With Amy, Kapadia elevates the young starlet’s story and spends time extrapolating Winehouse’s love of music, rich inner-life and insecurities. Further, he leverages these elements of Amy’s life and her tempestuous romantic life to contextualize how they influenced her substance use rather than casting judgement on Amy’s relationship to drugs. In an especially affecting scene, British producer Mark Ronson discusses the recording process of “Back to Black,” a sorrowful Winehouse song about heartbreak. Ronson relays the ease with which Winehouse wrote and performed the song and how this subverted the rumors he’d heard about her scatteredness and difficulty. The dissonance between Amy’s passion, talent and the compassionless tabloid contortions of her personal struggles—as demonstrated through Ronson’s remark—exemplify the ways that the pressures of celebrity distorted her image and further alienated Amy from herself. Amy’s inclusion of the singer’s family and strategic use of home video personalize this documentary in a way that effectively humanizes Amy and implicitly criticizes the media scrutiny which worsened the singer’s mental health.
Kusama: Infinity explores the life of Japanese painter, multi-hyphenate artist and queen of polka dots, Yayoi Kusama. Kusama’s story is one unkissed by instant success. In fact, Kusama: Infinity is a testament to Kusama’s persistence despite her initial rejection from the American art world in the ‘60s due to her “unconventional nature,” womanhood and Japanese heritage. While mental illness is sometimes positioned to discredit artists or to grossly, legitimize the “authenticity” of their art, Kusama’s mental health struggles are discussed in the film as an aspect of her reality. Her art is characterized not only through its aesthetic details and interactive nature but also through the catharsis it has offered Kusama throughout her life. The film connects Kusama’s family’s apprehension towards her artistic aspirations and her temporary defamation in Japan that reinforced the feelings of isolation she experienced (and then poured back into her art) when treading the choppy waters of the mid-20th century New York art scene. Although Kusama is now beloved and acclaimed worldwide for her polka-dotted murals, whose massive scopes have been described as stretching into “infinity,” her story is one distinguished by a distinct relationship to time.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.