This Documentary Series Is Straight Out Of Little Women

Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Towards the end of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, a grown-up Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is walking with her sisters Meg (Emma Watson) and Amy (Florence Pugh), when they ask what she’s been furiously busy writing up in her attic office. “It’s just about our little life,” Jo says. 
“So?” Amy replies. 
Jo: “Well, who would be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys — it doesn’t have any real importance.” 
Amy: “Maybe it doesn’t seem important because people don’t write about them.”
Jo: “No, writing doesn’t confer importance, it reflects it.”
Amy: “I don’t think so. Writing them will make them more important.”
Those words are at the heart of Tell Me: Women Filmmakers; Women’s Stories, a new series available to stream on the Criterion Channel (the best streaming service to get if you want to use this time to explore classic and cult movies) in May. Curated by Nellie Killian, Tell Me features 22 rarely seen documentaries directed by women, all of which showcase women talking about the minutiae of their lives. Like Jo, none of them think that what they’re saying is particularly riveting. But the filmmakers, channeling Amy, know better. By turning the lens on the women who live in New York City’s Department of Sanitation “salt mines” (The Salt Mines, Susana Aiken and Carlos Aparicio, 1990), or those finding community at a Black lesbian strip club in Los Angeles (Shakedown, Leilah Weinraub, 2018), or housewives whose entire social status is wrapped up in their laundry-pinning technique (Clotheslines, Roberta Cantow, 1981), the documentaries that make up Tell Me are reinforcing the idea that women’s stories — all of them — matter. 
“The very idea that you want to hear what all sorts of women feel about laundry, you’re already sort of saying, this is interesting,” Killian says in an accompanying conversation with comedian Jenny Slate, her former college roommate. 
In a modern cinematic landscape that often vacillates between the extremes of  overtly problematic misogyny and manufactured “you go girl” moments, these films provide a refreshingly honest look at women in all their messy complexity. Sometimes they’re petty or mean, sometimes they nag, sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re sweet, and often, they’re all those things at once. 
Photo: Courtesy of The Criterion Channel.
“Even though the tradition of hanging up your laundry is gone, sizing up other women is not,” Slate points out in the exclusive clip below. “At 38 years old, I continue to pull out that misogyny from myself. My mother was born in 1950. She said things about other women — and it’s not that she’s a cruel person, but there’s a transmitted way of surviving in patriarchy.”
The collection gets its name from one of its most powerful pieces: Chantal Akerman’s Dis-Moi, a 40-minute documentary that ran in 1980 as part of a French TV special on grandmothers, and tracks the legendary filmmaker as she interviews women about surviving the Holocaust. The intimacy of these portraits is jarring. These women aren’t camera trained, nor does Akerman want them to be. She enters their homes as a curious friend, fed cookies and vodka and various sweets as she lets them share some of their darkest memories but also fond recollections, family stories, rumors, and old gossip, unfiltered and uninterrupted. At the end, there’s a long sustained shot as Akerman and her subject eat together in front of the TV, not speaking, but comfortable in their quiet bond. That’s kind of what it feels like to sit through these films. You don’t know these women, but you’re connected. 
This pandemic has largely robbed us of that sense of belonging. So many of us are staying home, avoiding physical contact with others, and it’s easy to feel like you don’t matter. Spending your lunch break, or an evening, with women from all walks of life who have lived through good times and bad won’t solve the crisis. But it might ease the solitude, just a little. 
You can watch Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories on The Criterion Channel now. Catch the conversation between Jenny Slate and Nellie Killian on May 24.

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