From honourism to colourism to surviving horror: 8 documentaries every woman should watch


A furore of global controversy centres on the subjects of these documentaries: honour killings, prejudices faced by dark-skinned women, and the prohibition of education to young girls, among others. 

A Girl in the River, 2015

A Girl in the River tells the story of Saba, an 18 year old Pakistani woman sentenced to death by her family for falling in love with a man they disapproved of. Her survival story highlights the country's harsh judicial system and backward cultural values. HBV indicates a shocking 5 000 reported honour killings committed internationally per year.

In an interview with The Guardian, director of the documentary Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy mentions that she wanted to relay the story about honour killings from a survivor’s perspective, since victims of this crime most often die, leaving their stories untold.

Saba’s courageous willingness to tell her story won the documentary an Academy Award for best documentary (short subject).

Read more: Honour killings: why men kill female family members

Dark Girls, 2011

According to Quartz Africa skin-lightening is reportedly a $10 billion (R131 billion) industry, and in South Africa ‘colourism’ is still a pertinent and troubling issue experienced by many dark-skinned women.

Dark Girls looks at the prejudices faced by women with dark skin from all walks of life in America, and takes it a step further by exploring the link between these biases that affect social acceptance, classism and finding a romantic partner, as well as the permeation of the western standards of beauty set by the media.

Brave Miss World, 2013

Linor Abargil is an Israeli lawyer and won the Miss World beauty pageant in 1998. This happened just seven weeks after she was raped by her travel agent in Milan. Since then, she has become a global advocate in sexual violence against women. Brave Miss World took four years to produce and features several rape survivors’ stories – something Linor encourages women to do on her website.

Rough Aunties, 2008

The title sounds almost comical, but the story is a far cry from that. Although this documentary is almost ten years old, the abuse of children continues to be a major societal problem in South Africa.

Berea Mail reports that in the last five years The Durban Child and Youth Care Centre alone attended to 170 cases related to child abuse, neglect and abandonment. Directed by internationally acclaimed director Kim Longinotto, Rough Aunties chronicles a team of five women’s attempt to shelter and protect abused and neglected children of Durban. 

The Hunting Ground, 2015

In 2016, Lady Gaga’s Til it happens to you performance at the Oscars drew worldwide attention to sexual violence on American college campuses – the subject of this documentary.

College experiences have become synonymous with rape culture and many universities across the globe, including Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town, launched campaigns around gender violence last year.

The Hunting Ground also addresses the array of injustices faced by the survivors like societal attitudes towards the young girls such as victim-blaming, untreated trauma, and an uphill battle these students go through in pursuing their education. It is a story of young women that went from sexual assault victims to survivors and activists.

Alison, 2015

In December 1994, at the age of 27, Alison Botha was attacked and raped by two men, stabbed more than 30 times and left for dead in a deserted area in Port Elizabeth. She miraculously survived, had a book published and twenty years later her story was turned into a documentary that shows her conscious decision not to allow the men who attacked her to destroy her life.

Like Brave Miss World, Alison is a story of horror, miracles, courage and hope. Watch Alison in an interview with Afternoon Express.

Girl Rising, 2013

A global campaign that addresses the power of education for girls worldwide, Girl Rising’s fact sheet shows that in July of 2016, UNESCO reported that there are 130.3 million girls out of school worldwide.

UNAID reported that girls who complete secondary school are six times less likely to marry as children, and according to Brookings, 75% of girls start primary school but only 8% finish secondary school in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The documentary features nine girls across the world, from Ethiopia and Egypt to India and Peru, and each of their stories are narrated by actresses including Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep and Priyanka Chopra.  

Miss Representation, 2011

The debate around whether the media shapes reality for us or simply represents it is relevant to this documentary. It argues that the media is a pervasive contributor of sexism in society, its influence on young children in internalising these thoughts and how its portrayal affects the limited number of positions of power held by women.

It also suggests ways we can all stop being complicit in furthering these stereotypes. Just last week, reported that women in Brazil are calling for an end to advertising sexism.

Last year The Guardian reported that global brands like Unilever are working towards avoiding sexist stereotypes in its adverts. P&G’s 2015 #LikeAGirl campaign, for instance, serves as a good example. This documentary stresses the importance of women creating their own stories to awaken and change people’s mindsets, because “it all depends on who’s piloting the plane”.

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