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These female documentary directors could have been on the Oscar short list

A scene from Amanda Lipitz’s “Step.” Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pict

Five of the 15 films on the Academy Awards documentary short list are by women. There should be more, because nonfiction film is one genre in which female directors aren’t a rarity.

Here are 10 films by women that could have been on that Oscar short list.


Hope Litoff’s idolized, multitalented sister Ruth committed suicide in 2008 after a long struggle with mental illness. Hope still can’t comprehend the loss. This documentary is her attempt to do so,

Opening a storage room full of Ruth’s belongings where she finds diaries, photographs, hundreds of pill bottles, and an unfulfilled plan for an exhibition, Hope tries to put the pieces together. But as her project grows into an obsession, she is in danger of losing her own hard-won sobriety.


For more information go to www.32pillsmovie.com/index.html.


Filmmaker Leah Warshawski’s grandmother Sonia Warshawski may be physically unimposing, but the 90-year-old Holocaust survivor has a big heart. She’s one of the last tenants in a deserted shopping mall where she runs the tailor shop started by her late husband, also a Holocaust survivor. But when the mall threatens to close, Sonia decides it might be time to face up to her terrible memories and bear witness so that others might learn from them. Warshawski’s film is a funny, moving tribute to a great soul.

For more information go to bigsonia.com.


The Navy scoffed at Hollywood sex symbol Hedy Lamarr when she offered them plans for a device that would create an unbreakable code for radio messages during World War II. Years later, the innovation would become the basis of numerous 21st-century digital communications devices. Though Lamarr would eventually be credited for the invention, she never received a cent for it. Alexandra Dean’s brisk and illuminating documentary shows why the Jewish Vienna native should be remembered for much more than starring in tawdry hits such as “White Cargo” (1942) and “Samson and Delilah” (1949).


For more information go to zeitgeistfilms.com/film/bombshellthehedylamarrstory.


Mexican singer Isabel Vargas Lizano, a.k.a. Chavela, drew on her indomitable independence and deep-seated loneliness when she performed the music that made her a star in the 1930s. She was a famed seducer of women, including Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner, with a legendary capacity for drink that almost did her in. Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary brings to life the fabulous triumphs and sometimes self-induced disasters of her life, culminating with her rediscovery by the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who brought her to Spain where she performed until her death in 2012 at the age of 93.

For more information go to www.chavelavargasfilm.com.


Relocate the Maysles brothers’ “Grey Gardens” (1975) from a squalid Brahmin estate to a cluttered Greenwich Village apartment and the result might be something like Vanessa Stockley’s documentary about Jessica (the “genius”) and her 90-year-old mother, Ruth (the “opera singer”). This darkly comic cinema vérité portrait of a co-dependent relationship that has lasted 50 years manages to both appall and inspire.

For more information go to www.vanessastockley.com/the-genius-and-the-opera-singer.


If you want to change the world, there’s no better person to call on than Heather Booth. As seen in Lilly Rivlin’s brisk profile, Booth has been involved in political activism from the 1950s when, as a teenager, she handed out leaflets against capital punishment in Times Square, to just about every progressive cause up to the present day, including civil rights, the feminist movement, AIDS, environmentalism, and consumer protection. No doubt the 72-year-old has a lot to keep her busy today. Rivlin captures her subject’s determination and passion and her insistence that passion is not enough: To change the world requires organization, hard work, and strategy.


For more information go to heatherbooththefilm.com.


Ramona Diaz emulates Frederick Wiseman in this meticulous and layered look at a sprawling, ramshackle maternity hospital in Manila. The ward is an organized chaos of infants and mothers, but soon individuals emerge from the crowd: a teenager with one child already who has given birth to twins and faces life with an unemployed boyfriend and a home without electricity or running water. An older woman who, having delivered her seventh child, leaves against medical advice with a sick infant to avoid racking up more expenses. And, in a near-absurdist scene, a dazzled mother receives an honor for giving birth to the “100 millionth Filipino.”

For more information go to www.pbs.org/pov/motherland.


The “Lethal Ladies” of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women are a team that practices the competitive, traditional African-American art form known as Step. An assertive combination of dance, theater, and music, Step unites these young girls and lifts them above the turmoil of a city undergoing racial tension. Amanda Lipitz’s intense and expertly structured documentary focuses on three of the performers, delving into their personal stories while relating their sometimes troubled preparations for an upcoming competition. In the end, the film is a tribute to the power of art and teamwork to transform lives and communities.


For more information go to www.foxsearchlight.com/stepmovie.


Lara Stolman follows the New Jersey Hammerheads, a team of autistic teenage swimmers, through a season of meets leading up to the state championship. The competitions are compelling, as are the struggles members undergo at home and in social situations. With the help of committed, self-sacrificing family members they strive to overcome their disabilities and achieve goals that are common to everyone: autonomy, acceptance, and personal excellence.

For more information go to shop.pbs.org/pov-swim-team-dvd/product/AMD63011.


Rory Kennedy takes a break from the politics and tragic history of “Last Days in Vietnam” (2014) to examine the life of the extreme surfer who earned glory by taking on 50- to 100-foot waves and courted controversy by devising innovations that stretched the limitations of the sport. Full of astonishing footage of Hamilton’s achievements and insights into his daredevil compulsions, the film celebrates superhuman feats while probing the human motives behind them.

For more information go to www.takeeverywave.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.