From individual human interest stories to films charting issues like climate change, war and the power of corporations, we’ve put together a guide of The Handbook’s favourite documentaries directed by women. Read on to inspire your next sofa film session.
The best documentaries directed by women
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Directed by Liz Garbus
Liz Garbus directs this look back at the life of singer Nina Simone and her troubled life. The legendary musician is one of the most influential singers in music and became a civil rights activist during the 1960s. The doc covers much of this period of her life in particular, including a performance in the presence of Martin Luther King Jr, the relationship with her husband that became sadly abusive as he grew cynical of her activism, and her increasing dependency on pills. It’s an emotional watch as Simone battles bipolarism and troubles with her career and gives a great insight into a woman who firmly stood by her beliefs.
Directed by Franny Armstrong, in collaboration with Ken Loach
McDonalds has faced a number of lawsuits in its time, notably one over boiling coffee, but none have been as long as the McLibel case. Lasting 10 years, it remains the longest libel case in English history, with McDonalds filing a lawsuit against two British environmental activists, Helen Steel and David Morris when they made a critical leaflet campaign against the fast food giant in the late 80s. This acclaimed documentary was helmed by Franny Armstrong with reconstructions directed by Ken Loach, and is a fascinating look at corporate power vs people power. It also features interviews with Super Size Me star Morgan Spurlock, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, and future Labour leader Keir Starmer, then a barrister providing pro-bono advice.
My Octopus Teacher
Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed
One of those Netflix documentaries that lit up the internet on release, My Octopus Teacher was released back in 2020 and charts the relationship between Craig Foster, a naturalist and filmmaker, and a wild octopus. Foster had been diving in South African waters when he came across a young octopus that he decided to follow for close to a year. Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary will make you appreciate how humans and nature can connect, and how we can learn lessons about ourselves from the animal world. It won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2021, and you’ll probably never get as emotional over an octopus as in these 85 minutes.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
The excellent Blackfish represents the increasingly popular view that SeaWorld and similar sea animal parks are often cruel to captive animals and unethical. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film examines how orcas in particular are treated badly by SeaWorld, and focuses on Tilikum, an orca who killed, or was involved with, three deaths at the park. Orcas are not naturally highly aggressive, and the doc lays out the case that the fact that Tilikum was involved in three out of the four deaths of humans in contact with captive orcas suggests that captive treatment results in this kind of behaviour. It had a strong impact in 2013, resorting in lower ticket sales for SeaWorld.
One Child Nation
Directed by Nanfu Wang
China’s One Child Policy is one of the most debated and studied aspects of the country’s modern history, and Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation takes an analytical view of the government initiative that lasted over 35 years. The director’s own family was affected by the policy, and the documentary sees Wang discover these effects and the family’s attempts to find her lost cousin, who was abandoned in the 1980s. It doesn’t just focus on the families and people whose lives were altered following its enforcement, with interviews with those who were involved in carrying it out. The doc also shows how much of China believes the policy was necessary, as well as how having two children is now encouraged.
Directed by Waad al-Kateab
A documentary about how someone can still lead something of a normal life even in the middle of a war, For Sama is made by Waad al-Kateab and tells the story across five years of the Syrian Civil War. Beginning with the uprisings that led to the conflict, and moving through the Battle of Aleppo, one of the largest and most important battles of the war, the 18-year-old economics student soon finds herself falling in love, marrying, and giving birth to a daughter, Sama. The film is named after her daughter, but also documents her husband, a doctor, treating people injured in the war. It is not a comfortable watch, with footage of a city being hit with bombs, missiles and chemical weapons, as well as a frantic attempt to save the life of a newborn- but it gives a powerful look at the horrors of warfare.
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vaserhelyi and Jimmy Chan
Telling the story of rock climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, the Best Documentary Oscar-winning Free Solo was directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and her husband Jimmy Chin. Alex is shy and prefers to live mostly alone with his girlfriend, but is a free-climbing master. You’ll probably repeatedly ask yourself “why?” as Honnold prepares to scale 3000ft of the rock face, but Free Solo depicts his determined daredevil nature so engrossingly that you’ll be rooted to your sofa. As you can imagine, the seriously difficult climb will make your palms sweat, and it feels almost like a fictional movie rather than a documentary.
Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov
A Macedonian documentary about beekeeping, Honeyland documents the life of a lone beekeeper living in a North Macedonian village. Filmed over three years, it explores not only Hatitdže’s life tending to wild bees, but also topics of climate change, environmental damage, and how natural resources are exploited. The village has no running water nor electricity, but the feeling of isolation is broken by a new couple and their children move in. The couple initially gets on well with Hatidže and her elderly mother, but things change when the husband, Hussein Sam, becomes too reckless when he attempts to set up his own bee colony. It makes a commentary on the encroachment of consumerism on the environment and was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.
Directed by Kristine Stolakis
Pray Away deals with the issue of conversion therapy and how it affects the LGBTQ community and is directed by Kristine Stolakis. Following several survivors of the hugely controversial practice, as well as former conversion therapy leaders, you’ll see how first-hand accounts of how it affected the lives involved. It primarily focuses on Exodus International, a breakaway group of evangelicals who claimed that they could turn gay people straight by praying and using conversion therapy. It’s an important and informative watch, especially since conversion therapy is still in the process of being banned in the UK and is unbanned in many states of the US.
Directed by Beeban Kidron
InRealLife was released a decade ago, but its subject and findings have only become more relevant. Taking a look at how technology, and in particular the internet, has changed the lives of young people, it deals with the damage of an increasingly virtual world. A teenage boy is interviewed and explains in detail how often he watches porn, the ethics of Google are scrutinised and a teenage girl suffers after trying to get her phone back. The film received some criticism when it was released for being too alarmist and representing a moral panic, but have the intervening years of more and more technological change only added more credence to the argument? You’ll have to watch yourself and decide.