HBO Documentaries, a fairly new branch of the US television cable network are establishing themselves as a leading producer of contemporary documentary films. Many of their films played at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (Project Nim, How to Die in Oregon and Bobby Fischer Against the World to name a few).
This time, in a similar vein to Martin Scorsese’s Public Speaking with Fran Lebowitz, the life of a pioneering, feminist activist is told directly from the person themselves. Gloria Steinem’s life is broken up into a number of segments including: youth, career, political awareness, personal tragedies and public criticisms. These segments detail her history as a loud advocate for the second wave of feminism.
Steinem herself says that each generation has its own names that stand out. In her generation, she is one of these names. While the film is a biographical documentary, it also works well as a history lesson, surrounding the 1960s society in an understandable context. The film is crucial viewing for people who are unaware of the second wave of feminism and its inceptions. Former injustices behind the inequalities remind us of how far we have come, and how far we still have to traverse regarding racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia.
“Our job is not to make young women grateful, it is to make them ungrateful, so they keep going” says Susan B. Anthony as quoted by Steinem in the HBO film. Several more poignant and potent quotes are offered throughout the piece. Talking during an abortion rally, Steinem acknowledges the quote often wrongly attributed to her; “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
Criticism against Steinem is detailed in great form, a feature that is often greatly elided in biographical documentaries. Both her personal beliefs and professional endeavours were targeted. The formation of Ms. magazine proved to summon many predictions from commentators and newsmen alike that the magazine would fail greatly. The first issue sold out within a week. And the criticisms continue into the 21st century. A clip of the demonic and irrational Glenn Beck as well as the “Rot in Hell” caller on Larry King Live show the courage Steinem has to still continually assemble, decades after the feminist movement began.
Humanity is revealed most movingly through a eulogy for fellow feminist advocate and Congresswoman Bella Abzug. Talking about the death of her mother also reveals a stark contrast to the woman branded as hard and fierce. A breast cancer diagnosis, and the death of her only husband also detail more personal tragedies. It is also wonderful to see that a critic of marriage shocked friends and fans alike when she wed for the first time at age 66.
Gloria reveals the life of a radical activist who is inspired and inspiring. Her zest for life is evident when the film concludes with Steinem wishing to live to the age of one hundred. Let’s hope that wish comes true. Enough history of Steinem has been detailed here and more can be seen in the documentary. I am tempted to just keep writing about the trials and tribulations of Steinem and the women’s movement, but it all can be seen in this elegant production. Director Peter Kunhardt and HBO prove once again that they are a leader in producing absolutely terrific, world class documentaries.
Written by James Madden.
Gloria: In Her Own Words premiered in the US on HBO on August 15.