Audrey Flack with photorealist potrait in documentary Queen of Hearts

New Documentaries by Women — November 16, 2020

Let’s get straight into the documentaries this week. There’s a good range that should suit most major interests – activism and social inclusiveness, contemporary art, and the history of a cult all among this week’s new features:

Coded Bias (virtual theatrical)
directed by Shalini Kantayya

When technology makes quantum leaps forward, it brings along the biases of the people who implement it. Consider facial recognition software. The demand for it is driven by law enforcement agencies that are used to profiling and abusing communities of color. The technology itself is designed for implementation by technology companies that dip into the same white tech bro pool of ownership (and hero worship).

There’s considerable evidence that this facial recognition technology only works for white faces. It regularly mislabels Black and brown faces, creating situations where the wrong people are arrested and accused of crimes simply because a system can’t tell the difference between the two. That leads to further profiling and abuse, as well as claims of plausible deniability when police and other agencies are held accountable. “It’s not my fault, it’s the technology’s fault” leads into, “We spent this much on the technology, it’s too expensive to replace”, until one more systemic reinforcement of abuse is normalized.

This is the mechanization of racism, and facial recognition software is just one single technology among a sea of tech that practices this.

Director Shalini Kantayya is a documentary director who’s focused on the intersection of technology and those communities either helped or marginalized by it.

See how to stream “Coded Bias” via virtual cinema on its website.

Transhood (HBO)
directed by Sharon Liese

“Transhood” focuses on trans youth. There’s no medical intervention at this point, but children make realizations every day about who they are. These social realizations are no different than a thousand others.

Yet for reasons of bigotry, ones about gender are regularly criticized as abusive. How can they be? Allowing children to discover who they are over time is the definition of growing up. Forcing them into definitions and roles that aren’t true to themselves – forcing them to deny exploring who they are – that’s what abuse really is.

“Transhood” centers on the experiences of children figuring out who they are, and their relationships to their family, friends, and society at large as they do so.

Director Sharon Liese has focused on a number of youth social issues as a producer. As a director, this is her first full length documentary.

You can watch “Transhood” with an HBO subscription.

Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack (virtual theatrical)
directed by Deborah Shaffer, Rachel Reichman

Audrey Flack is an artist who’s pioneered photorealism in painting. She started as an abstract expressionist who enjoyed focusing on kitsch. This led along a very unique path to becoming one of the foremost early photorealist painters. Much of that foundational abstraction still exists in her photorealist work, which gives it a strange sidelong grounding that can feel hyperreal.

Her art is often busy, thick with elements and meaning. Her most famous works often feel housed within a certain 1960s and 70s era of kitsch, but this is a singular strength. She’s also worked as a sculptor who’s focused on women who challenge traditional concepts of the feminine.

Director Deborah Shaffer has helmed a number of documentaries about artists trying to challenge and change their environment. Director Rachel Reichman is a documentary editor, and this is her first directed work since 1996.

See how to stream “Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack” via virtual cinema on its website.

The Cult of the Family (Starz docu-series)
showrunner Rosie Jones

CW: child abuse

I think we’re in cult-a-week territory on docu-series these days. This is one of the more…intriguing is the wrong word, but in terms of stories it’s pretty out there. The Family was a cult in the 1960-80s where yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne convinced people she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. One of the members was the owner and manager of a psychiatric hospital where patients were dosed with LSD. This connection allowed Hamilton-Byrne to recruit members directly from the hospital’s patients.

Members would then give their children to Hamilton-Byrne to claim as her own – a total of 14 in all. She even falsified documents to pass them as her own, while dressing them in identical clothes, dying all their hair blond, and giving them identical hair cuts. The children themselves were essentially jailed, starved, drugged, and beaten, while raised within the religious teachings of Hamilton-Byrne.

“The Cult of the Family” is a three-part series that ran in Britain earlier this year, but I believe its debut on Starz is the first time it’s directly available to viewers in the U.S.

You can watch “The Cult of the Family” with a Starz subscription.

Inside Pixar (Disney+)
co-directed by Erica Milsom

“Inside Pixar” is a docu-series that looks at how Pixar’s animated films are conceived and made. Each 10 minute episode profiles a different person involved in the process of making a film. This kind of series is often an interesting view for families from a process standpoint, BUT there’s a huge grain of salt here because of who commissioned and is releasing it:

A documentary about Pixar made essentially by Pixar might give you an inside look as to the ideal artistic and technological processes for making these films, but it’s also unlikely to be thorough or honest. I highly doubt it’s going to do something like tackle the 25+ years that John Lasseter was groping and sexually harassing women employees there.

Look at the YouTube comments (I know, I know) and it’s plastered with users saying they’d love to work there or can’t wait to work there when they’re older. And sure, Lasseter left, but it’s still a structure that ignored and permitted his actions for decades. Disney couldn’t even manage to fire him in the end. They just held onto him and kept paying him while on sabbatical until his contract expired. They didn’t even have the courage to take a moral stand.

How well can you depict the process of making these films when you omit the most toxic behind-the-scenes element that plagued the process of making these films? People idealize working here as some sort of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory instead of having a realistic view of what it may cost them.

It’s tough. The series might very well profile a number of people who had to put up with or suffer that shit. But it also might profile people who enabled it, and it certainly profiles an organization that allowed it in a positive, dreamy, wouldn’t-you-like-to-work-here light. It begs the question what responsibility a docu-series like this has, exactly, and how much something like this is documentary vs. marketing.

Erica Milsom has directed a number of documentary shorts, including ones for Pixar going back to 2007.

You can watch “Inside Pixar” with a Disney+ subscription.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

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