Mary Dore: The Women’s Movement Had Been Utterly Disrespected, and It Killed Me
Mary Dore was angry. Over the past several decades, there have been hundreds of films about every political movement under the sun, from the civil rights movement, to the gay rights movement, to even the hippie movement. Why have there been so few movies made about the Women’s Liberation Movement?
Using this alarming fact as motivation, Mary started work on the very first documentary to paint a comprehensive picture of the women’s movement. It was a revolution of crackling energy and bottomless complexity, all of which is represented in the stunning She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Swirling together in-depth interviews with some of the key figures of the movement and unforgettable archival footage, the film is a brisk, invigorating, wholly entertaining insider’s look into one of the most significant, under-appreciated pieces of American history.
I spoke to Mary in San Francisco about how tough the documentary market is these days; the film’s grand scope; why the women’s movement has been so neglected; the film’s successful Kickstarter campaign; negative stereotypes of the movement; why certain people were offended by the film’s title, and much more.
The documentary scene is really tough right now.
It is. The docs that get most heralded don’t make any money. It’s shocking, isn’t it?
It is! Seeing all these great films go nowhere is pretty heartbreaking.
I know. We have a really great distributor, and that makes all the difference. I was so burned out from making the film for so long that there was no way I was doing the distribution myself. Some people do that, but I knew I didn’t have the infrastructure and energy to do it. I wanted the film to be widely seen. The culture we in now is so film festival-based. Film festivals decide whether your film is worthy or not. I wasn’t going to stand for that. We didn’t get into some festivals, which really ticked me off, but I didn’t take it personally because there are so many great films. I just didn’t want to be defined by, “well, if you’re not at Sundance, you’re not a worthy film.” We got into a lot of great festivals, but it’s like, if you don’t get into Sundance or Toronto or SXSW, you have no life. We didn’t get into any of those, but we’ve gotten rave reviews and we’re getting into more theaters than a lot of other films. Audiences really wanted to see it. Every time I showed it to an audience, the reception was really positive.
It’s a very entertaining film.
Thank you. It was meant to be. People think of historical documentaries as the “cod liver oil” of documentaries. I don’t feel that way. I think history is fascinating. And as a filmmaker, you want to make the movie entertaining, because you want people to feel it. A lot of the people who were in the era the film covers tell me that the movie feels like the era they were in, which is the biggest compliment I could get.
The film is really expansive. It covers a lot of the complexities of the movement.
We wanted to make it expansive because we wanted to show all of the distortions of the women’s movement and the amnesia about what it really was. You want to correct those understandings and you want to do a really detailed history. It was really important to show that there were all these different facets of the movement; it wasn’t just one monolith by any stretch. When people make history docs like this and they almost polish everything to a golden glow…I mean, who wants a nostalgic look back? I don’t see the point of that. Movements are complicated.
I can’t believe it’s 90 minutes long. There’s so much stuffed in there!
It’s really fast! [laughs] I had to leave out so many things that I wanted to put in. I had to cut stuff out because my goal was to make an entertaining, publicly accessible movie. At one point, a distributor was like, “This is great! I can sell this to all these women’s studies programs!” I thought, that’s wonderful, but I want to reach a broader audience. I figured 90 minutes was all I could do. There’s a lot of content in there. I had wonderful editors, too, including my producing partner Nancy [Kennedy].
We did it, and we’re really happy. Maybe at some point someone will give me a grant so I can get out of debt! That’s what I pray for on a daily basis. [laughs] We’re not going to make money on the theatrical release. It’s almost impossible for a doc to make money. If we break even we’ll be doing great, but it costs a lot of money to do a theatrical release.
I think it’s great that you’re doing a theatrical release.
I really felt this was a good film for theaters. There are other films that are better or more worthy, but they aren’t necessarily theater films. When you see this film with an audience, it’s so much better than seeing it on a screen. The audience reacts to everything. It’s really fun to have people around you moaning and groaning and laughing out loud. I think because of the nature and politics of the film it’s good for people to see it together.
With a lot of historical or political docs, there can sometimes be so much information jammed in there that things can get lost in all the noise. That doesn’t happen with your film, I think because the imagery is so striking and well-presented. When I saw W.I.T.C.H. I was like…I’m never going to forget that!
[laughs] That’s so hilarious! I didn’t know about W.I.T.C.H. until I researched them, and they were so hilarious. I wanted a lot of content in there because I’m not a fluffy filmmaker, but I do like to entertain people too, so that’s the balance we struck. The ignorance of the subject was so vast that it was important to put enough serious content in there. I’m a history nerd and an archival nerd. If you put a box of dusty documents that no one’s looked at in 40 years in front of me I’m like, “THANK YOU!”
What is it about that that interests you?
It’s like being a detective! You never know when you’re going to find something extraordinary. I’ve done a lot of archival films, and when I can I love to do the archival footage too. It feeds the story, and it’s really great to find stuff that hasn’t been seen before. I really love doing it. I think it’s the chase.
You had a pretty kick-ass Kickstarter campaign.
People were really nice to us. That was a lot of work. People are so romantic about Kickstarter. “It’s magic! I have a great idea! I’ll put it up, and I’ll get millions!” We did a lot of research before we started. We contacted every woman’s group we could think of to sort of pre-alert them. We didn’t go into it blindly. I literally sat at a table for five weeks in my kitchen in my pajamas. I’d start answering emails at seven in the morning and finish around ten at night. Because of the nature of the film and how possessive people are of that history, it really affected them.
But people were also extraordinarily generous. There were people who emailed their entire kindergarten class to give me money. You know what I’m saying? All these amazing groups came to us, and they weren’t really official groups, just people who were jazzed about the film. We were lucky. We had over 1200 donors. That’s a lot of donors. The big kids in town make $70,000 and have 100 donors. They’re in a different class than I am! [laughs] I don’t come from that culture! But people started campaigns for us, which was amazing.
How does it feel to see people support your film in such great numbers?
It’s amazing. I’m shocked and amazed. As a critical filmmaker who’s been doing this for a long time, I look at the film and I see the 800 things I would tweak or do differently. But having worked on the film for such a long time, I just had this feeling that I had to finish it.
I read somewhere that you started filming in 2000. Really?
We did. I actually started writing grants before my kids were born, and they were born 21 years ago. In 2010 me and Nancy Kennedy started talking: “Why is this movie not happening?” Apparently the women’s movement is not considered a cool subject. What can I tell you? I couldn’t figure out why. We made a quick trailer to show people that it would be fun, and it was a great trailer. That’s when we got the title for the film. It’s from an old newsreel.
It’s the best title ever.
Isn’t it?! Some people were so mad at me about it.
Some feminists were upset because they thought it was trivializing. Some were very offended by the word “beauty” because they were against beauty standards. Others were offended by the word “angry” because women are always accused of being angry. I was like, don’t you get how many levels this title works on?! It’s so complicated. You don’t make social change without some anger. People who are living happily day to day don’t make change, because they don’t have to. People talk about the idea that it was a literal use of the word “beauty”, but what about the righteous beauty of anger when you have to make change? The film was never meant to be sentimental. I wanted it to be self-critical and outrageous and funny and upsetting, because the women’s movement was all of those things.
The women who drove the movement had no money, minimal resources, and were fighting this uphill battle against a society that treated them like they were less than human, basically. Is their fight a source of motivation as you campaign for your movie?
Well…it was my motivation for making the film. I felt that the women’s movement had been utterly disrespected and ignored, and it just killed me. I’ve seen hundreds of wonderful films on the civil rights movement and on the anti-war movement and on the gay rights movement. Why haven’t we seen any on the women’s movement? There have been a couple of good feature docs on women artists, but that’s not the women’s movement. That’s a section of it. I found out very quickly that no one wanted to fund a film about it because it wasn’t very “cool”.
The negative stereotypes of the women’s movement are that it was racist, homophobic, or bourgeois. All of those criticisms have validity, and we show that in the film. But to have that be the opening line is not accurate, because they were really aware of all those things. I mean, many in the women’s movement were active in the civil rights movement. It was that big, enthusiastic idea of, “We’re all women together!” It’s like, yeah, but we’re not all alike. That was a big mistake. But does that mean that they were totally racist? Of course not. They made mistakes, as does every other movement. Why is the women’s movement so denigrated when it was arguably the biggest social movement of the last century?
I asked Linda Burnham, who is in the film and was active for a long time with the Third World Women’s Alliance, “How racist was the women’s movement?” She just said, “Mary, we live in a racist country, and in that period, every movement had those same problems of dealing with race properly. So why is it only the women’s movement that gets the wrap?”
That’s a great question.
I don’t know what the answer is.
I need to share something with you. I grew up in a white community, and I never experienced any overt racism.
But you were still conscious, right?
I wasn’t. I’m almost 30 years old, and over the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking about my childhood more and asking myself why I’m not more angry about how I was treated. I think back now, and it’s like…there was a lot of racism going on! There was an eye-opening moment for me in your film where one of the women says something like, “We’re sensitive about this issue because so many people are insensitive.”
That’s Shulamith Firestone. She was a genius. She said, “We don’t like being sensitive about this issue, but we have to be, because how else are we going to change the consciousness?” She’s snapping her little fingers. It’s true. You don’t want to be bitchy, but what’s the choice? To passively accept it? Now, your parents must have done a really good job of protecting you, so you’re lucky. I mean, it’s not unlucky that they kept you safe and not depressed all the time! That’s good! [laughs] It forces a later acknowledgement. I’m French Canadian and I was aware from the earliest age of how I was looked down upon and treated badly. I grew up in Maine, where being French Canadian is the lowest of the low.
I didn’t know that!
Yeah, nobody does unless you’re from New England.
Some people ask me why I get so upset about some subtle forms of discrimination, and I never had an articulate answer. I had a great childhood, so I can’t say I grew up in misery! But I’m still angry about having been treated differently because of my ethnicity. Honestly, your film sort of lit a fire under my butt.
Subtle insults still hurt. It’s still bad. I wanted the film to be accessible to a lot of people. Obviously I care about the women’s movement, but I also care about a million other issues. I was hoping that the film would be accessible to other people about other issues. That’s what I wanted. To me, it’s a film about organizing. The women’s movement is obviously the core, but I think it’s useful today because every generation has a movement.