Film-makers Dawn Porter and Lindsey Dryden talk about storytelling with impact.
Documentaries used to be the poor relation of film genres, but that is beginning to change.
Although made for a minuscule fraction of the budget of an Avengers movie, a well-made documentary can often punch above its weight in terms of shaping and changing public conversation and galvanising action.
Dawn Porter's Trapped, for example, explores laws regulating abortion clinics in the American South and has been used to help propel reproductive rights conversations in countries across the globe. Meanwhile, Lindsey Dryden’s Unrest has helped change the UK media’s ‘long-entrenched and offensive interpretation of [chronic fatigue syndrome or ME] and the women who have it.’ There is now a team working on NICE guidelines in the UK; there is congressional advocacy toolkit in the US; ME groups have been able to raise more money than they have been able to do in the past; and US healthcare professionals are using Unrest for their continuing professional development.
How do these groundbreaking documentary films get made? And how do we get to see them? As part of Oxford Saïd’s International Women’s Day celebrations, the student-led Oxford Women's Leadership Alliance invited both Dawn Porter and Lindsey Dryden to the School to talk about what they do.
‘You have to make it relatable’
At the heart of the documentaries by both Dryden and Porter are stories, and particularly stories about individual characters. ‘People really do enjoy being dropped into a world that they haven’t experienced before, but you have to make it relatable,’ said Porter. She described how, in her film Gideon’s Army, about public defenders in America’s Deep South, she interviewed the mother of a young man who was being charged with possession of narcotics. ‘She showed me photographs of him as a baby, and said, as all mothers do, “he was a very good baby.” As soon as she said that, you think of him as a baby’. He becomes a person, not a stereotype.
Stories are also about ‘grabbing people’s feelings.’ Porter talked about one of Dryden’s short films for the Trans in America series: ‘The audience … says I recognise those feelings. I can see with my own eyes that that person is a girl. It’s not the same as reading about someone who is born male but feels female. Seeing someone who’s clearly a girl, you think why should she be forced to be in the bathroom with people of the other gender? That feels insane when you see her.’