Kathryn Bigelow at Oscars

After watching last night’s exciting win for Kathryn Bigelow and realizing that today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I found myself wondering who had been the first woman director to win Best Documentary? And for that matter, how many documentaries directed by women have won Oscars in the history of the Academy Awards?

A little googling informed me that this is not exactly easy information to come by. The first time documentaries were acknowledged at the Academy Awards was in 1942 — and it was actually a tie between four films (!) — all about war and all directed by men (including one entitled Prelude to War by Frank Capra). I kept clicking. I thought I hit pay dirt with 1945’s winner, The True Glory, a British film directed by Carol Reed (the English Leni Riefenstahl, perhaps?), but was reminded in the next graph that Carol used to be a popular name for boys when “she” was referred to as “Sir Carol Reed.”

After trolling through two decades of mostly war and travel docs in Wikipedia, I finally found the first documentary directed by a woman to win best feature. It’s a biopic entitled Helen Keller in Her Story (also known as The Unconquered), and it won in 1955. The director-writer-composer-producer Nancy Hamilton is described in imdb.com as “one of the true triple-threat pioneer film-women of the time.” The film also gets a 9.3 out of 10 rating.

Other women to receive the Oscar for best documentary feature include:

  • 1963: Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World directed by Shirley Clark
  • 1972: Marjoe directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan
  • 1976: Harlan County, USA directed by Barbara Kopple
  • 1985: Broken Rainbow directed by Maria Florio and Victoria Mudd
  • 1986: Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got directed by Brigitte Berman (tie)
  • 1986: Down and Out in America directed by Lee Grant (tie)
  • 1987: The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table directed by Aviva Slesin
  • 1990: American Dream directed by Barbara Kopple
  • 1991: In the Shadow of the Stars directed by Allie Light and Irving Saraf
  • 1992: The Panama Deception directed by Barbara Trent
  • 1993: I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School directed by Susan Raymond
  • 1994: Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision directed by Freida Lee Mock
  • 2004: Born into Brothels directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski

Not a bad haul for the ladies. And there are, of course, a bunch more docs directed by women that received nominations for best feature, including My Country, My Country by Laura Poitras (POV 2007) and The Betrayal — Nerakhoon (POV 2008) by Ellen Kuras. Add them to your Netflix queue or search your library’s media stacks!

Late-Breaking Addition: I can’t believe I forgot to mention Regret to Inform which was nominated in 1999 and is streaming live in its entirety on the POV site right now. In this gripping film, director Barbara Sonneborn makes a brave pilgrimage to the remote Vietnamese countryside where her husband died in the Vietnam war and interviews Vietnamese war widows to show how shared sorrow can inspire healing and reconciliation.

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What are your favorite documentary films directed by women? Share them below.

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