Review - Feminists: What Were They Thinking?

by Paloma Giustizieri

Image via Netflix.com

Feminists: What Were They Thinking

Directed by Johanna Demetrakas


During the second wave of feminism Cynthia MacAdams, an American actress and photographer, took black and white portraits of feminists. She compiled a book of these portraits and a few decades later this documentary located the women who were captured by MacAdams to explore the feminist issues of then and now.


The documentary compiles the testimonies of a few of the women who were photographed by MacAdams. Each woman has a moment where she describes when that click went off in their minds, making them realize the harsh effects of the patriarchy on women. For Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, they described it as, “[feeling] the embryotic kicking of feminism and not knowing I was even pregnant.”


One of the most powerful moments in the documentary where when they used archive footage of a woman’s rights protest in the 1970s and then juxtaposing it with footage of the protests against Trump in 2017. These protests are decades apart, yet are still fighting for women’s safety and rights. A protestor who walked with her mother in the 80s was interviewed when protesting with her daughter at the rally against Trump and she said, “I want to be done fighting, but we can’t”.


An editing technique that captures the eye, is that the documentary uses the black and white images captured by MacAdams, and then transitions into the colourful video footage of women being interviewed in the present day. This is both used as a transition technique as well as an editing choice. It brings us from past to present, and then back to the past without having to question the timeline.


While watching the documentary I was waiting for someone to critique the fact that the second wave feminist movement did not fully include the needs of marginalized women, such as women of different races, sexual identities and ethnicities. I was pleased to see that there were a series of women who did critique that.


The documentary has an artistic approach to it. The subjects of MacAdams’ photographs were mainly artists, writers, photographers, poets, actors and activists. There is a specific scene in the documentary that discussed the atomic bomb that went off in Japan. The visuals were a black and white video of the bomb going off, which was placed behind Anne Waldman performing a spoken word poem. The general tone of the documentary has this artistic flair to it.


Feminists: What Were They Thinking provides educational information about safe spaces for women, what happened during that period of time for all women with different identities and the outcomes of that era. It is uplifting yet saddening. It is empowering yet disheartening.


The documentary goes back and forth – it plays on the want to get up off your seat and fight the patriarchy, the homophobes and the racists of the world. It is a film that I would recommend if one is looking for something inspirational and educational.


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