When Mary Dore, a Maine native, moved to Boston to make documentary films in the early 1970s, the modern women’s movement seemed to have exploded overnight. There was an energy to the activism. It’s that era’s passion and sense of purpose that she has sought to reclaim in her new film, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.”
“History has been buried and the women’s movement branded,” says Dore, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. “My focus was always going to be the grassroots level supported by mostly unknown women. I don’t know how they did it, but many had organizing skills from the civil rights and anti-war movements. You couldn’t keep people away. It was the moment; women were so hungry, they flooded in.”
“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” opens Friday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with Dore in attendance all weekend for post-screening discussions. Her film recounts the modern women’s movement from the mid-1960s into the early ’70s, including allthe sweeping social changes it brought about during that short but pivotal span. Besides heralding the ordinary women at the heart the movement, Dore wanted her film to be as entertaining and as lively as the times.
It wasn’t difficult to find footage. “Organizers were smart about using the media,” says Dore. The film recounts highly theatrical events such as activist Karla Jay leading a march on Wall Street, and the famous “bra burning” demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.
But Dore also depicts efforts that were far below the radar. A well-organized group in Chicago called “The Jane Collective” risked arrest and prison to provide a secret network to help women seeking illegal abortions. Dore, a self-described “nerd” and “obsessive,” combed through years of poorly indexed archives and databases to find obscure material to highlight. Historian and journalist Ruth Rosen burned her college degree at a rally to dramatize the lack of opportunities for women in academia and the professions. “Ruth didn’t even remember it. An intern found the date in a progressive newspaper and that led us to the clip,” says Dore.
Dore cut her moviemaking teeth as a member of a Boston film collective that produced independent historical documentaries such as “Children of Labor” (1977). Along with Noel Buckner and Sam Sills, she directed the 1984 feature “The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.”
She was producing documentaries for PBS in New York when she had the revelation about the film she wanted to make. “I could not believe no one had made a documentary [solely] about the women’s movement. There had been many 1960s retrospectives with two minutes devoted to feminism. It was treated as trivial when it was arguably the largest social movement of the 1960s,” she says.
With producing partner Nancy Kennedy, Dore made a trailer featuring an interview with journalist Ellen Willis, cofounder in early 1969 with Shulamith Firestone of the radical feminist group Redstockings. Then, in 2010, “we finally got our first grant, which was enough to keep going. I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going to stick this out,’” Dore says.
There was urgency to her efforts. Activists from the ’60s and early ’70s were aging out of the picture — Willis died in 2006, Firestone in 2012.
Among the grassroots organizations featured in the film is the nonprofit Our Bodies Ourselves (originally called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective), whose seminal 1971 book has sold more than 4 million copies in 29 languages. “We didn’t have an agenda. We weren’t trying to sell anything. We wanted to inform women and empower them to make the best choices possible with good, accurate information,” says Vilunya Diskin, one of the group’s founders who is featured in the film. She credits Dore with “letting women speak for themselves and for letting the movement be the star. There’s so much energy in the film; that’s how it was: a fertile, passionate time. Everyone was leaving her comfort zone.”
“As founders, we are continually amazed that our project has come so far and helped to change the global conversation,” adds another Our Bodies Ourselves founder, Joan Ditzion. “Many young women take these changes for granted. ‘Feminist’ isn’t a catchy word [today] but it was never a controversial concept. It just meant we wanted to live in a society with full equality.” Ditzion and Diskin will participate in a panel talk after the Coolidge screening at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
“This is the film I wanted to make,” says Dore. “They were great times and hard times and everything in between. There were thousands of things and thousands of women I could have included. One film can’t do everything. But I covered what I could and I got it done.”
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.