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“Women War and Documentary Film”

“Women War and Documentary Film” is a series of four films each covering a different war/conflict (W.W. II, Vietnam, the Rwandan genocide, the Iraq war); each by a woman director; and each dealing, in its subject matter, with the response of women to war as laborers, widows, victims, and wives/daughters. For two films in the series, a panel of DePauw faculty provided commentary and answered questions following the screening. For the other two films, the directors were invited to campus to provide a commentary and answer questions. The films were the following:

Rosie the Riveter (1981) W.W. II:

     This documentary, by director Connie Field, deals with the women who, between 1942 and 1945, went to work in the war-production industry.  In 1996 the film was selected by the Library of Congress to be placed in the US National Film Registry on account of its “cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance.”  The film focuses on the experiences of five of these “Rosies”—all working-class women, three black and two white, from both urban and rural communities—who were able to move, during the war, from low-paying, menial jobs to skilled, high paying defense work with union protections; all of the women lost their jobs at the end of the war.  One of Fields’ purposes was to “debunk what she calls the myth that middle class women entered the war plants for patriotic reasons.”
    The strength of the film is in its presentation of the individual narratives of these five women whose interviews are intercut with the “official” counter-narrative presented in the form of archival footage--newsreels (including the March of Time series), recruitment films, government propaganda, popular songs, newspaper headlines, and commercials.  These dual discourses confront each other in powerful ways.    DePauw Faculty Panelists: Meryl Altman (English and Women’s Studies) Barbara Steinson (History); and John Dittmer (History).

Regret to Inform (1988) Vietnam

     The title of this documentary, by director Barbara Sonneborn, refers to the telegram Sonneborn received in 1968 when, at age 24, she was informed of her soldier husband’s death in Vietnam.  The film, first conceived 20 years later, begins as a private journey—a literal and figurative one—to the site of her husband’s death in Vietnam and to a place of reconciliation and understanding.  It ends, however as a collective story of memory and grief and an exploration of the nature of war and the human costs on both sides.  Barbara’s interviews with both American and Vietnamese war widows—who constitute the authoritative voices in the film—offer a unique and completely neglected perspective on the war.
     The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 where it won prizes for best director and for cinematography.  It was also nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature and won prizes at many other festivals.  Sonneborn, who was on campus to speak about her film, is an artist from the Bay Area who is well known as a photographer, sculptor and set designer.  She is a political/peace activist.
Image Credit: Sun Fountain Productions

As We Forgive (2008) Rwandan genocide

     This documentary, by Laura Waters Hinson, and narrated by Mia Farrrow, tracks the lives of two Rwandan women (Rosaria and Chantale), survivors of the genocide, who are brought into contact with the men (Saveri and John) who had slaughtered their families.  Hinson describes “wanting to explore the concept of reconciliation from two different perspectives: that of a survivor who had forgiven and one who had not.”  In the process, Hinson also deals with the lives of the two murderers and with profound questions about the limitations of justice; the possibilities of justice and mercy operating together as genocide perpetrators were sent back to the communities they helped to destroy; and the question of how a community, through “the power and pain of radical reconciliation,” might come to terms with a traumatic past.
     Laura Waters Hinson’s film won the student Academy Award for Best Documentary; it was her thesis project for her MFA degree in filmmaking at the American University in Washington, D.C.  The story is a classic one--of borrowing money from family and friends; hiring a student crew of four first-time filmmakers who would work for room and board; arriving in Rwanda without a translator, arranged interviews, or even a place to stay; and managing, nonetheless, to take 55 hours of film footage in one month out of which came an extraordinary film at a cost of only $25,000.  She was on campus to speak about her film following the screening.

My Country, My Country (2006) Iraq War

     This documentary, directed by Laura Poitras, deals with the aftermath of the war in Iraq focusing on the 2005 elections.  Its main protagonist is Dr. Riyadh—a Sunni medical doctor, political candidate and father of six who runs a free clinic in Baghdad—serving the community of which he is a respected member—offering medicine, wisdom and sometimes money to patients who have been traumatized by years of violence. Much of the power of Poitras’ film derives from her alternation between “quotidian” scenes of the doctor and his family at home (his wife and daughters figure prominently), ribbing each other even as they also deal with blackouts or seek shelter from bullets and bombs, with scenes of the elaborate orchestration of the election—by U.N. officials, coalition forces and private contractors.
     This film asks important questions—political questions about the occupation of Iraq; social questions about alien cultures confronting each other; cultural questions about the diversity and complexity of the ethnic and religious groups—each with varying identities, histories, and ideologies--that make up modern Iraq; ethical questions about the representation of trauma; aesthetic questions about the power of images to awaken social action; philosophical questions about the meaning of democracy in different contexts.   DePauw Faculty Panelists: Jeff Kenney (Religious Studies); Nayhan Fancy (History); Keith Nightenhelser (Film Studies).