Three feminist documentaries to watch for International Women’s Day

Surfers, scientists and activists shine in these terrific films about Australian women. Be inspired, challenged and informed while you look forward to a time when we don't need a Women's Day.

International Women’s Day is Monday 8 March and it’s a chance to highlight some films that focus on the achievements of fierce, fabulous women, and the challenges they still face for equality in every arena. Here are three newish films on our radar this year.

The Leadership (online)

The idea of taking 76 female scientists from around the world on a 20-day cruise to the Antarctic, while also schooling them in ‘leadership skills’, sounds like a positive one. Australian CEO and ‘dreamer’ Fabian Dattner is the leader of this voyage, but her gung-ho tactics and abrasive personality put her at odds with many on board. Generational differences in style and a lack of proper processes around trauma almost sink the cruise, but the support the women offer to each other keeps it afloat, and Dattner is no simple villain.

This is a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking look at what’s happening to bright young women pursuing careers in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics & Medicine). Facing insecure contract-based employment and the requirement to publish or perish, they’re also experiencing shockingly common sexual harassment. These issues are borne out in personal stories, and also in the statistics presented in the film.

A fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking look at what’s happening to bright young women pursuing careers in STEMM 

The pristine beauty of the endangered Antarctic and its stunning marine creatures provides moments of humour (watch for the scientists clamoring at  windows to see whales breaching, while Dattner insists they focus on their homework). The landscape works as a reminder of what we are up against environmentally, and the need for our brightest minds to be employed to find solutions.

Directed by filmmaker Ili Baré, who won the Eureka Prize for Science Communication and Journalism for her work on Becoming Superhuman (2017), The Leadership is produced by Greer Simpkin of Bunya Productions.

How to watch

The Leadership is available now on DocPlay, iTunes and Google Play. You can also request cinema screenings and look out for more festival screenings. (Bonus viewing suggestions from producer Greer Simpkin who curates a DocPlay selection here.)

Girls Can’t Surf (in cinemas)

This is the story of the fight by female surfers to be taken seriously. It begins in the 1980s, where the world of professional surfing is full of peroxided hair, fluro colours and strutting male egos. The women are forced to hold competitions during the men’s lunch breaks, and their bikini bodies are critiqued more than their sporting ability.

Directed by Christopher Nelius (Storm Surfers 3D) and produced by Michaela Perske, Girls Can’t Surf follows the journey of the women (many of them Australian) who changed the sport forever and turned women’s surfing into the billion dollar industry it is today. The film includes surfing greats Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Pauline Menczer, Lisa Andersen, Pam Burridge, Wendy Botha, Layne Beachley and more.

How to watch

Surfing world champions Layne Beachley, Pam Burridge, Pauline Menczer, Jodie Cooper and Wendy Botha are currently on a national Q&A tour ahead of the theatrical release of Girls Can’t Surf on March 11. Screening information and ticket sales here.

Brazen Hussies (in cinemas and iView)

Even the most ardent contemporary feminists might be surprised at parts of this history of Australian activism between 1965 (when women chained themselves to bars for their right to drink with the blokes in their local pub) and 1975, by which time the Whitlam Government had enacted huge social changes including no fault divorce and free university education.

Written and directed by Catherine Dwyer and produced by Andrea Foxworthy and Philippa Campey, Brazen Hussies uses rare archival footage and contemporary interviews with many of the women involved, now older but still full of fire. The film shows how a small band of women organised around issues like equal pay, childcare, reproductive rights and prevention of family violence, and through collective action turned the tide of history, as these demands went from being dismissed as ridiculous to being accepted elements of political policy. 

This film had me in tears of admiration and gratitude

Brazen Hussies is above all, enormous fun, and it doesn’t skirt over the many conflicts and contradictions within the movement. (Should boy children be allowed at female-only communes?) It’s a fitting tribute to the mothers of Australian feminism who paved the way for our current freedoms, as contested as they feel right now. This film had me in tears of admiration and gratitude, and served as a reminder of the power of ordinary people when they get together. It should be required viewing. Take your daughters, take your sons.

How to watch

Brazen Hussies is having many screenings around the country to coincide with International Women’s Day. Details here.

Brazen Hussies is also coming to ABC iView on 8 March.

Me Three: A Triple Bill for IWD (The Capitol, Melbourne)

If you’re in Melbourne, some bonus feminist films are coming to The Capitol in celebration of International Women’s Day: ‘a triple bill of screenings and conversations about the legacy of feminism and how it connects with younger womxn today.’

Screenings of Brazen Hussies (2020), She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014) & We Aim To Please (1976) will be accompanied by filmmakers and feminists in conversation about the legacy of feminism and how it connects with younger women now.

The first session features a screening of Margot Nash and Robin Lurie’s experimental short We Aim To Please together with Catherine Dwyer’s Brazen Hussies and the filmmakers in conversation. 6pm, Thursday 11 March. Robin Laurie, Barbara Creed and Catherine Dwyer will be in a conversation led by Vy Wijekumar.

The second session sees a screening of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, the story of second wave feminism in the US, introduced by associate producer Catherine Dwyer. 6pm, Friday 12 March.

Priced accessibly. Single session tickets to either screening are $12+BF or Triple Bill discount $20+BF. Free if you’re an RMIT student/staff. Details here.

Read: Why don’t you…? Twenty extravagant ideas for International Women’s Day and beyond

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram