The 5 Best Documentaries about amazing women

Harriet Hall, author of She: A Celebration of 100 Renegade Women recounts her favourite Dogwoof documentaries about amazing women.

You’ve probably seen a thousand films about the men who have shaped and changed our world, but how many have you seen about the women who have moved mountains to innovate and be recognised? I’ve always been inspired by the women that came before me, and I’ve often learned about them through the medium of film. These are the Dogwoof ones which have stayed with me.

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

When Vivienne Westwood saw this documentary, she immediately rejected it. But I can’t think of a world in which the mother of punk would have liked a film about herself, and that she disliked this so much is one of the things that makes it so interesting. Going behind the façade of the iconoclastic designer who sparked the sartorial punk movement, Lorna Tucker’s film shows a sensitive and even – dare we say it – an establishment side to her subject.

Often funny and more often, inspiring and compelling, Tucker’s observations of Westwood see candid moments of frustration, tenderness with her husband - her company’s creative director Andreas Kronthaler - and concerns about the future of her brand as it expands, interwoven with archive footage of the designer with her ex-partner, infamous manager of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren.

We see the journey of a woman from a modest childhood in the post-war East Midlands to the extravagant catwalks of high fashion, from an anarchist to an activist, a woman whose every move has impacted the very fabric of British culture as we know it today.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

At one time referred to as the most beautiful woman in the world, Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood star whose looks belied her intelligence. As women know all too well, their appearances – whatever those may be – are often used as weaponry against them, and Lamarr is an exemplar of this.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story illustrates just how damaging this viewpoint was for Lamarr, who craved to be recognised for more than just the sum of her parts. The film shows the shocking reality of the Hollywood studio system and what it did to stars like Lamarr and countless others – chewing them up and spitting them up, keeping them high on drugs so they could perform for longer shoots.

But Lamarr’s beauty, as Alexandra Deans’s fascinating documentary carefully draws, enabled her to be wildly underestimated. The documentary shows how Lamarr, desperate to assist the allies in World War Two, puts it upon herself to draw up plans to outwit the enemy by means of a ‘secret communications’ system that could intercept German messages by hopping across frequencies. This  technology ultimately underpinned what Wifi, GPS and Bluetooth systems.
Despite creating undoubtedly the most vital modern technology, Lamarr continued to be underestimated and unsatisfied with life.

Marina Abramovich

If you go to any leading art gallery you’d be forgiven for thinking female artists are a rare phenomenon. And Marina Abramovich is even rarer – she’s a female artist with a name recognised worldwide. Recognised for over 40 years.

Abramovich has sat on a white horse clasping a white flag, singing the Yugoslavian national anthem for an indefinite amount of time. She has sat across from a table of weapons, willing visitors to try them out on her. Without a doubt one of the most fascinating performance artists of all time, she drives art – and herself – to the extreme.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, follows the Serbian national as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at New York’s prestigious MoMa gallery in 2010. But more than simply capturing an artist in the throes of pre-performance tension, the documentary sees Abramovic question the very nature of what art is.

The show sees the artist remain in one of the museum’s galleries for three months, inviting visitors to sit opposite her and stare into her emotionless eyes becoming as much a part of the performance as her, until their turn is up. Some people are overcome by the emotion of it.

With comment from art critics, curators and Abramovic herself, who invited documentarian Matthew Akers into her home for filming, this documentary is a celebration of a true innovator.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

Starting her career by saving priceless Picassos from the hands of the Nazis, Peggy Guggenheim went on to discover some of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists and to largely define the artistic era in which she lived.

Daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim who drowned with the Titanic, niece of gallerist Solomon Guggenheim and lover of some 400 men including Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, Sam Beckett and Max Ernst, Guggenheim was as fascinating as a person as the paintings with which she adorned museum walls, and this documentary about her life doesn’t fail to stun, picking up every little detail of her fascinating life.

As star-studded as life stories come, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict sees the collector’s fascinating life told through art historians, collectors, critics and Guggenheim herself, painting a picture of a woman who surmounted personal tragedy to live a full and colourful life as one of the most important figures in the history of modern art.

Whether you know about her or not, this documentary is a must for anyone interested in art.


Women grow up believing they have an expiry date. In the fashion industry, the date comes around even more quickly. But Iris Apfel is a physical embodiment of the wholehearted rejection of youth as the default beauty, embracing life, fashion and eccentricity with increasing vigour as she ages.

Followed by the late documentarian Albert Maysles (87 at the time of filming), the 93-year-old Apfel is a complete delight to watch, from bartering down bangles in New York thrift stores, selecting clothing every day from her Bazaar-like apartment, as if picking the ripest fruit and veg out at the supermarket, and refusing to temper her natural high spirits.

Maysles captures tender moments between Apfel and her 101-year-old husband Carl, sees how the socialite adores working (despite her advancing years – and apparent wealth) and reminds us of the power that fashion has to transform us and our entire careers, as Apfel becomes more fabulous in every scene. I challenge you to watch this film and not fall head-over-heels for Apfel and her bug-eyed spectacles.

SHE: A Celebration of 100 Renegade Woman is out now. Buy it here