Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Professor endorses collision between ‘parallel universes’ of documentary and feminist film

Diane Waldman is known for juxtaposing her areas of interest to discover where convergences and divergences lie.

Her research projects combine subjects like law and culture. She co-edited an anthology on feminism and documentary that continues to garner attention more than a decade after its publication. Feminism and Documentary (University of Minnesota Press, 1999) includes essays by prominent scholars and filmmakers who explore documentary theory and feminist theory. Waldman and co-editor Jane Walker believe the two theories share many areas of concern.

“Our goals for the volume were multiple,” explains Waldman, an associate professor of media, film and journalism studies. “Of course, we wanted to draw attention to important but little known documentary work by women filmmakers. Second, we hoped to go beyond the explicit focus on work by women filmmakers to demonstrate the salience of feminist perspectives for all kinds of documentary theory and practice. And third, we hoped to illustrate the importance of a consideration of what was then the relatively neglected genre of documentary film for feminist film studies.”

The book’s introduction traces out the “mutual myopia” of documentary and feminist film studies and describes how each evolved as “parallel universes” despite their common opposition to commercial cinema. Waldman was amazed to discover forgotten examples of early feminist film criticism that had engaged with questions of race, ethnicity, class and sexuality.

In April, Waldman was invited to speak at the University of Northern Colorado’s (UNC) International Film Series “Focus on the Documentary.” Since Feminism’s publication, Waldman says documentary filmmakers have made important films contributing to public discourse on many different topics, none more relevant than the host of films on the conduct of war and the revelation of torture and human rights abuses.

“Fueled by the perceived need to adopt so-called ‘harsh interrogation techniques’ to combat terrorism, the change in the roles of women in the military, and the fact that documentation of current wars has increasingly fallen to amateur participant-observers, if there was ever a subject that indicates the inadequacy of a consideration of gender without attention to race, class, nation and vice versa, this is it,” Waldman says.

Her speech, “Feminism and Documentary: Women, War and Photographic Evidence” was accompanied by a film review. Waldman wanted to show the continued relevance of feminist perspectives to documentary film theory and practice as well as the importance of documentary film for feminist theory devoted to social justice. She showed clips from the documentaries To See If I’m Smiling, Standard Operating Procedure and American Faust: From Condi to Neo-Condi. The three films are available from Penrose Library.

Kenneth Chan, an assistant professor of film studies at UNC, invited Waldman to the film festival. He says students need to see that alternative perspectives to documentary films can enrich our understanding of not just the history and traditions of the genre, but also the way we understand and see the world.

“I think a feminist approach to documentaries would highlight not just an important film genre for women filmmakers, but also that a feminist perspective can help transform our perception of America’s involvement around the globe, the way Waldman’s readings of war documentaries does,” says Chan.

Waldman teaches courses in media history, theory and criticism. This fall she’ll teach Women and Film, and she’ll team-teach Advance Production Sequence in Documentary Film next spring with Lecturer Elizabeth Henry.

“I certainly bring my interest in documentary to a class about women and film, and I bring feminist perspectives into a class about documentary film production,” Waldman says.

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