Adventurous and determined, Janet Guthrie is a trailblazer in the auto racing world. As the first woman to race the Indy 500, she faced an uphill battle to break the gender barrier in the late 1970s. Her career was plagued with setbacks; from mechanical failures, to lack of sponsorship that kept her out of races, to injuries and the biggest of all was the engrained belief that women could not physically be race car drivers.
Guthrie is a fearless woman. At a very young age, she fell in love with flying and didn’t hesitate to jump out of a plane for her first skydive. But realizing that female pilots were banned from both the airline industry and the military, she decided to become an aeronautical engineer instead. This led to her discovery of sports cars, a fascination with their design and her infatuation with the sport. Developing her skills as a driver, Guthrie loved speed and racing took over her life. But was auto racing ready for a woman driver?
“What is this nonsense that women can’t do it?”
Janet Guthrie on women race car drivers
Director Jenna Ricker’s Qualified follows the career of Janet Guthrie and all its ups and downs. And there were a lot of downs. The documentary consists of mostly archival footage of Guthrie’s races and television interviews. Guthrie herself and the various drivers and mechanics speak at length about her qualifying attempts, her races and all the struggles she endured in her career. I found Guthrie’s story both frustrating and awe-inspiring. I was angry at society for holding her back whether it was a sponsor not wanting to risk being associated with a woman driver or other people in the industry believing the sport was too dangerous for women. One pivotal moment show the dilemma of whether to call out “gentleman start your engines” when both Guthrie and the mechanic starting her engine were women.
As a woman who has experienced many career setbacks, I was really motivated by Guthrie’s tenacity. She explored every option, fought for every qualifier and race and only gave up when no options were left for her. If it hadn’t been for her tenacity, she might not have opened the doors necessary to pursue her dream. That’s a powerful message for any woman of any age.
Qualified takes its viewers on an emotional journey. I’m so grateful for Ricker’s film and the opportunity to learn about Guthrie’s story. I’ll have to admit, I choked up a few times. I can’t emphasize how important it is for a woman to have a strong female role model, even if she’s in a completely different field from your own. It can be life changing.
Qualified had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Spotlight series.
“How am I ever going to find peace being comfortable in my own skin?”
Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski was caught between two worlds. He always knew he wanted to be a woman and he wanted to be strong. But he didn’t know how he could reconcile those two things being biologically born a man. Over the years Matt found success as a Marine and then as a champion bodybuilder and powerlifter where he won competitions and graced the cover of bodybuilding magazines. He became a legend in that world, idolized for his ability to develop huge muscles and to lift some really heavy weight. He had his fair share of struggles overcoming a difficult childhood, then surviving testicular cancer, depression and a divorce. Now a single father of three sons, he made sure they would grow up with an attentive and involved father. But something was missing for Matt. He could no longer fight against his true authentic self.
“I felt like the person I was was completely constructed. There was a whole bunch that was missing. I didn’t know if there was anything about me that was authentic.”
Michael Del Monte’s documentary Transformer, follows 43-year old Matt as he transitions to become Janae Marie. It’s an intimate portrait of a transgender individual grappling with how to function in society, relationships and career. Janae struggles the stability of being a man and instability of being a transgendered woman. And because Janae spent so many years as a visibly muscular and masculine man, she must deal with how to present her femininity but still train as a body builder. Having the majority of her hair, Janae must wear wigs and depend on make-up and clothes to present as feminine as possible even when a deep voice, wide jaw and wide muscular build fight against that.
What stands out about Janae’s story is the dichotomy between femininity and muscularity. She is a woman who founds success in the bodybuilding world as a man and its a world that she can’t seem to leave behind. In the documentary, we see Janae switch back to male many times until she finally decides to stay as Janae forever and moves forward with facial surgery that will help her connect with that feminine self that seems just out of her grasp.
“If all else fails your Matt Kroc.”
The film follows Janae through her transition, how she currently stands in the bodybuilding world and her relationships with her father (who refuses to accept), her mother (who is starting to accept) and her sons (who are completely supportive).
Transformer is an important LGBTQ documentary and its most significant message is for transgender individuals life is a constant struggle. However, as an audience we don’t really learn too much about the transgender community or the bodybuilding world and how it rejects transgender athletes. Its focus is squarely on Janae’s story. I would love to see another documentary that shines a spotlight on the gender bias in the bodybuilding world and how female and transgender athletes are treated.
Transformer is in select theaters today and is available to purchase on iTunes, Amazon prime, YouTube, Vimeo and other digital platforms. You can find more information on the official website.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz
dir. Barry Avrich
99-year-old Ben Ferencz is the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor. At the tender age of 27 and at the very beginning of his career as a lawyer, Ferencz went head-to head with some of the most notorious Nazi criminals of WWII. Born in Romania to Hungarian Jews, Ferencz and his family fled Transylvania for asylum in the United States. Raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, teachers quickly took noticed of the gifted young Ferencz. He went on to study in the City College of New York and Harvard Law School and during WWII where he served abroad in an anti-aircraft artillery unit before he was transferred to Gen. Patton’s Third Army where he investigated war crimes and visited concentration camps to collect evidence. Horrified by what he saw, he made it his lifelong mission to give back to humanity by prosecuting international crimes.
Director Barry Avrich’s newest documentary Prosecuting Evil, covers the whole scope of Ferencz’s life and career through interviews with colleagues, Ferencz’s son and Ferencz himself. It also includes archival footage from the Nuremberg trials and disturbing images from the Holocaust. Ferencz has been a tireless champion for humankind and even at the age of 98, when this doc was filmed, there were no signs of stopping. Ferencz has an important message from the past to deliver to the future. This can and is happening again. We must fight for humanity.
Prosecuting Evil is a beautiful and poignant documentary about one of the most important living figures from WWII. My heart swelled with emotion and I left the theater very moved. Ferencz is fierce and fearless. He’s a sweet man but not someone you want to mess with. If you have any interest in the history of WWII or humanitarian efforts of if you’ve heard of Ferencz and want to learn more about him, this documentary is essential viewing.
I attended a press and industry screening of Prosecuting Evil at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Do Americans really understand Socialism? That question kicks off a new documentary about the early 20th century socialist politician Eugene Victor Debs. Born in 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs grew up in a prosperous household but it wasn’t until he left school at an early age and entered the workforce that he began to comprehend the plight of his fellow working man. He fought tirelessly, sometimes at the cost of his own health, against the growing economic disparity between the wealthy and the working class that began in post Civil War America. He was highly influenced by Karl Marx but also by everyday people. Debs was a gifted orator, traveled the country proselytizing for socialism and amassed millions of fervent supporters. He campaigned for president several times, starting in 1900 and ending in 1920 when he was arrested for radicalism. To this day Debs holds the title of being the only presidential candidate imprisoned for his campaign platform. He was released from prison after 6 months and archival footage of the day of his release is included in the documentary. He continued to fight for his cause until his health failed him and he passed away in 1926.
Directed by Yale Strom and released by First Run Features, American Socialist chronicles the life and times of this little known figure in American politics. Economists, professors, scholars and writers offer their insights into Debs and socialism. I was interested to learn that socialism peaked in 1912, that during the agricultural crisis of the early 20th century Oklahoma was the most progressive of the Southern states in contemplating socialist politics and about how capitalism inherently clashes with Christian beliefs. But the focus of this film is truly Eugene V. Debs. It offers a look at the socialist movement,the history of labor activism and the fight against income inequality through the lens of Debs’ life.
Debs Red Special Band in Front of Train 1908
Socialist Party campaign poster 1904
What drew me to this documentary was this line from the film’s marketing copy:
“Bernie Sanders inspired a generation – but who inspired him?”
As someone whose politics align very closely to Sanders, I was curious to learn more about the man who influenced him. Bernie Sanders so admired Debs that he created his own documentary about Debs’ life and hung a portrait of Debs in his office. However I didn’t learn any of this from American Socialist . The film only showed a brief clip of a Bernie Sanders speech but offered no information about how the two political figures were connected. At 1 hour and 40 minutes I felt like a good 20 minutes could have been tacked on to explore Debs’ legacy, his influence on Sanders, and how democratic socialism is part of the political landscape today.