Women make films about women at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020

by Ania Ostrowska
6 July 2020
The F Word

From launderettes to abortion, Ania Ostrowska compiles a nuanced selection of documentaries from women filmmakers

It is that time of the year again: The F Word reports from Sheffield Doc/Fest, the UK’s biggest international documentary film festival.

Since 2013 we have managed to send one, sometimes two, journalists to Sheffield to watch films and interview filmmakers (and party!). This year, like so many other film festivals, Sheffield Doc/Fest moved almost entirely online with some screenings tentatively planned for cinemas in the autumn, like British director Lynne Ramsay’s portrait of photographer Brigitte Lacombe. As I can stop and rewind the films as I please (but also just abandon them half-way…) and as all Q&As and sessions take place on Zoom, this year’s experience is very different from the exciting festival buzz.

The opening good news is that two women filmmakers are subject of special focus this year. First, the festival pays tribute to Sarah Maldoror, pioneering filmmaker from French West Indies who died on 13 April of Covid-19 at the age of 90. One of the first women to direct a feature film in Africa, she went on to make more than forty films, mainly documentaries. Seeing cinema as a tool of revolution, in her work she sought to encourage radical changes in society. Maldoror’s anticolonial short Monangambée (1969) will be hopefully shown on the big screen in the autumn.

Secondly, the festival presents a selection of five films by American experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs (from 1994 to 2018), mostly involving creative collaboration with others. I watched The Washing Society (2018), co-directed with Lizzie Olesker, which peeks behind the scenes of some of Atlanta’s surviving downtown launderettes, highlighting invisible and often unacknowledged labour of launderette attendants through performance and re-enactment. With its title a tribute to the 1881 manifesto by an organization of African-American laundresses, the film also looks into the future, documenting the disappearing world of laundrettes as large facilities on the outskirts of the city take over.

Albeit set in very different contexts, the films draw attention to the ongoing struggles contemporary women face, and not just in the countries depicted.