There has to be some level of fear that comes from being the subject of a documentary. Even when you are interviewed and asked to be part of the experience, you’re still essentially giving your story to someone else and hoping that they do something respectful and appropriate with it. Director Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry dedicates itself almost completely to letting women tell their personal experiences, with minimal distractions and nearly zero additional frills. Dore forgoes narration and limits the use of interstitial titles in order to focus complete attention on her subjects: the second-wave feminists who organized, founded, and led the modern women’s liberation movement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Here, these women are allowed a platform upon which to describe their experiences and feelings in their own words without outside interference – which is the very same platform the film details their struggle to achieve.
Beginning with the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, …When She’s Angry follows the rapid growth of the women’s movement through interviews with dozens of women who were there in multiple roles. Organizers, poets, writers, political speakers, all are given opportunity to speak, and their present-day interviews are juxtaposed against archival footage and photographs of their younger selves. Dore and editors Nancy Kennedy and Kate Taverna keep the pace moving, no person’s story seems truncated, and no subjects within that time span feel glossed over, which is particularly noteworthy for a film only 90 minutes long.
Infighting, subdivisions, arguments over class, race, and social issues, all are covered, as well as more uncomfortable subjects such as the naming of sexual assault and domestic violence. The film, and the people inside of it, does not shy away from the issues and mistakes which happen during the growth of the movement, but more than anything it rightfully praises and celebrates its subjects. The film’s purpose is to document and capture a seldom-discussed part of modern history and tell it from the perspective of the people who lived it. Particularly interesting is how often the women praise each other and name specific others during their interviews. These are individual interviews conducted in what appears to be the subjects’ own homes, there’s no group around to persuade them, but each of them clearly wants to make sure that their friends and sisters’ work is recognized. Through her “no stone unturned” approach to storytelling, Dore achieves that goal.
It is this camaraderie which makes my sole complaint with the film so jarring. While I understand that the purpose of this film is to capture one specific time in history, it seems odd that less of an attempt is made to connect with modern feminism and current struggles. Although the film opens and closes with recent demonstrations, the movements of groups like the Slut Walk get a passing mention, as if they are an afterthought, and only one interviewee is asked to comment on the modern situation.
This wouldn’t be such an issue if not for the fact that the film has two lines at the beginning which resonate throughout. “You’re not allowed to retire from womens’ issues,” one woman says. “You have to continue to pay attention.” Another woman explains “In those days, even the most beautiful woman in the world was told there was something wrong with their body. If you were raped, people would not believe you.” Emphasis mine, because the usage of past tense in these opening statements partnered with the lack of connection to modern issues makes it sound as though sexism has been cured, you’re welcome. In another example, archival footage is shown of a woman in 1967 explaining that a woman makes 60% of what a man with similar education makes. I kept waiting for someone to mention that number still only being 70% today but it never was. The movie brings in young women to read the writings of their foremothers, but almost never to talk about themselves. Part of the purpose of a documentary is to demonstrate the present-day value of its content for members of the audience that may not know already (like all the non-feminists who somehow find themselves watching a film about second-wave feminism.) Without this connection, …When She’s Angry has the odd tone of being self-congratulatory while also being about incredible people who are completely worthy of congratulations. “It ain’t bragging if it’s true,” as the saying goes.
As I said, this is a minor quibble in the greater scheme of things, because the content that the film does present, it excels at. When She’s Angry is entertaining, informative, and reverent but fair in its treatment of its subjects. One particularly well-edited sequence transfers smoothly from footage of the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality into filmstrips of suffragette marches, and it takes a second to register the 50-year change. More than anything, however, it’s a film about the inspiring and seemingly spontaneous development of a series of ideals. The film heavily emphasizes how widespread, well organized, and effective the movement was, and it does so in a manner which is difficult to argue. Mary Dore has made a film with a mission, one that refuses to let a critical section of human rights history fade into obscurity, and on that regard it succeeds in nearly every way.
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