The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women dominate one Academy Award category. Here’s why.

The lower barrier to entry for making documentaries has made it easier for women to break in

(Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

Women finally have a more central place in the Oscars lineup this year. Seventy women received a record 76 Academy Award nominations, 32 percent of all nominations. And for the first time, two women were nominated for the directing category at the same time: Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” Women also directed a record 27 percent of the total eligible films for Best Picture.

Women actually dominate in the “documentary feature” category, however. Four out of the five nominated documentary features are either directed or co-directed by women. The same percentage was true last year. For decades, in fact, women have fared much better at being nominated in the documentary feature category compared with the directing and best picture categories.

Of course, there is still plenty of work for the documentary industry to do to recruit more women directors. But they’ve been much better at celebrating women than the mainstream categories. Why? Because from the beginning, women shaped the very foundation of the genre.

Documentary film frequently evokes ideas of masculinity. Ken Burns and Michael Moore may be the most recognizable names in American documentary filmmaking. And one of documentary film’s most recognizable stylistic hallmarks, the “voice of God” style of voice-over narration, has been almost exclusively male, from early newsreels to David Attenborough’s wildlife films to Morgan Freeman’s role as contemporary documentary’s voice du jour.

But women have long taken leadership roles in documentary filmmaking. Documentaries are generally much less expensive to produce than fiction films, meaning there are lower barriers for entry. Expensive fiction films tend to hire “reliable” moneymaking talent on both sides of the camera, which makes it much more difficult to break into the industry, especially as a director.

The lower barrier of entry enabled women to assert their voices, talents and perspectives in the documentary world from the very beginning. Robert Flaherty, director of the first commercially successful feature-length documentary, “Nanook of the North” (1922), is often considered to be the “father” of documentary film. But his wife, Frances Flaherty, played a key role in her husband’s films, at times adopting the role of director, editor, producer, distributor and promoter of these historically important documentaries. She even earned the recognition of the Academy with a co-nomination with her husband for best original story for their documentary “Louisiana Story” in 1942.

Likewise, John Grierson was central to the development of the British and Canadian documentary film industries. But his often-overlooked sister, Ruby Grierson, was an important filmmaker in her own right, working on the groundbreaking social documentary “Housing Problems” (1935) and directing her own documentaries about working-class life in the 1930s and ’40s, including “London Wakes Up” (1936) and “They Also Serve” (1940). She was praised at the time by film critics not with awards, but for treating her documentary subjects respectfully.

During the 20th century, documentary films became an increasing part of people’s lives. For instance, at movie theaters short newsreels became a staple before feature films that provided audiences with information about current news events across the globe. With the rise of television after the 1950s, audiences gained access to documentary news programs on a nightly basis from the comfort of their homes.

This history of a burgeoning documentary industry is replete with important films and contributions by many female filmmakers. For instance, Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Mead both incorporated nonfiction filmmaking into their anthropological work. Leni Riefenstahl directed morally reprehensible yet aesthetically innovative Nazi propaganda films in the 1930s. And Shirley Clarke produced groundbreaking work in documentary and experimental cinema.

The 1970s marked a significant shift in women’s participation in nonfiction filmmaking. The decade brought technological advances to filmmaking equipment, including lightweight, mobile cameras, wireless sound recording and videotape technology, which all lowered the barriers to documentary filmmaking and thus allowed more women to participate as creators.

And women finally received recognition for their contributions. Sarah Kernochan co-directed the Oscar-winner “Marjoe” (1972) about the life of evangelist preacher Marjoe Gortner. Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, U.S.A.” (1976), which brilliantly documents a coal miner’s strike in Kentucky, also won an Oscar for best documentary. Throughout the 1970s, women directors received eight feature documentary nominations and two wins. This is larger than the total number of nominations and wins for women in the entire history of the best director category.

Each successive decade has brought more female participation in documentary filmmaking as well as more Oscar nominations and wins for their work. Recent winners include Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour,” 2014), Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Free Solo,” 2018) and Julia Reichert (“American Factory,” 2019).

The makeup of the documentary film industry is also reflected in the voting membership for the documentary feature category, which is significantly more gender diverse than many of the other major categories. In 2019, more than 71 percent of people invited to join the documentary branch of the academy were women, meaning it reached gender parity for the first time. In addition, documentary director Freida Lee Mock was the first governor of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

There is of course still much room for significant improvement both for the Academy and the documentary industry more broadly. Documentary funders and broadcasters are increasingly open to supporting diversity of all kinds. Yet while 30 percent of documentary directors being women is considerably better than Hollywood, those numbers still have plenty of room for improvement. But even modest successes in the film industry can help model a path for a more equitable, inclusive marketplace.