‘Becoming,’ ‘Hillary,’ ‘The Cave,’ ‘American Masters’ Documentarians on Capturing Their Formidable Subjects

Between 2008 and 2018, four documentary directors focused their lenses on a quartet of formidable women. Women who are remarkably similar, yet incredibly different. Who defy patriarchy and inspire change. Women whose names are Dr. Amani Ballour, Hillary Clinton, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin and Michelle Obama.

While Clinton and Obama, two former first ladies, are better-known then Ballour and Le Guin, all four of these females have lives that contain an arsenal of dense material through which each filmmaker had to carefully sift and then whittle down in order to construct a project that succinctly and effectively told each groundbreaking story. The result is four Emmy nominated nonfiction projects: “The Cave,” “Hillary,” “American Masters” and “Becoming.”

National Geographic’s “The Cave,” nominated in the exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking category, focuses on unlikely heroine Ballour, who was Syria’s first and only female hospital administrator. Director Feras Fayyad first laid eyes on Ballour in 2013 while watching footage of her after a chemical attack in Syria.

“It was like something out of a Hollywood movie, where you see heroes running between the bodies and trying to save lives,” recalls Fayyad. “I could picture my mom, my sisters, the women who had been beaten during my time in [a Syrian] prison. All their stories came together in this woman, Dr. Ballour, who was not just doing her duty as a doctor, [but also] challenging the stereotypes and prejudices that Syrian society has about women.”

Fayyad says with “The Cave” he wanted the world to see an ordinary woman doing amazing things that could perhaps “change the world.”

Like Fayyad, director Nanette Burstein watched thousands of hours of footage in order to make “Hillary,” the four-part Hulu series, which includes never-before-seen 2016 campaign footage and is now nominated in the documentary or nonfiction series category.

But, “I didn’t want to do a documentary that re-litigated the 2016 election,” says Burstein. “I wanted to tell her whole life story.”

To take on that daunting task, Burstein conducted 35 hours worth of interviews with Clinton. No topic, including Monica Lewinsky, was off limits. After additional sit-downs with Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and Barack Obama, Burstein decided to take the plethora of footage she had gathered and make sense of it by structuring the series around themes including gender, partisan politics and the arc of the women’s movement.

“I was interested in how the arc of [her] life story fit into those themes,” says Burstein. “So the stories and antidotes that were included in the series centered around those themes.”

Gender is a theme in the “American Masters” episode about Le Guin, as well. The show has been a ballot staple since 1987 and is once again nominated in the documentary or nonfiction series category. The Le Guin episode is a 53-minute revelation about the Portland, Ore., housewife, mother of three and science fiction writer. Winner of a 2014 National Book Award and the second living author to have their work anthologized by the Library of America, Le Guin wrote 21 novels, 11 volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, 12 children’s books, six volumes of poetry and four translations of books during her life.

To capture the essence of Le Guin’s large body of work, director Arwen Curry filmed Le Guin before her death in 2018 in various locations across America’s West Coast.

“Ursula was deeply connected to geographical places and landscapes,” says Curry. “The worlds that she invented in her books were inspired by the worlds that she walked through in her life. So we filmed in the Napa Valley, in the Oregon coast and the Oregon high desert and other locations.”

But at the heart of the piece is Le Guin’s transformation into a major feminist author after publishing “The Left Hand of Darkness” in 1969. About a planet full of people whose gender fluctuates, Le Guin’s decision to use “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun sparked considerable criticism from feminists at the time.

“One of the things that was so amazing about Ursula as an artist and a person was that she was not afraid to make a mistake,” says Curry. “So instead of trying to erase that part of her work, she owned it and built upon it. I wanted to tell that intimate journey of self-discovery because I think that it’s an important lesson for not only writers but people in general.”
Transformation is also a theme in Nadia Hallgren’s “Becoming” for Netflix.

Shot over roughly six months in late 2018 and 2019, “Becoming” accompanies Obama on the 34-city book tour that followed the publication of her 2018 memoir of the same name. The docu serves as a brisk biography of Michelle Obama’s life — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago through her marriage to Barack Obama and his rapid ascent to the presidency.

Nominated in the documentary or nonfiction special category, “Becoming” includes green room chats with such luminaries as Gayle King and even an interview with the Secret Service agent who’s been tasked to Michelle Obama since the 2008 campaign, Allen Taylor. While filming Obama’s daughters Malia and Sasha at home was not permitted, both appear and speak in the film, as does former president Barack Obama. Behind-the-scenes moments are intercut with book tour Q&As to tell 56 years of Michelle Obama’s life in 90 minutes.

“I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of [the memoir] so by the time we started filming I had a sense of some topics I wanted to cover,” says Hallgren. “I learned things about Mrs. Obama from the book that I knew had to be in the film. I also allowed myself the room to see what I would discover through the vérité footage I filmed. I left that open with no particular expectation. Ultimately the structure came together in the edit but we started out knowing our goal was to weave the material together to create a sustained flow of emotional pacing and energy.”

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