In 2021, filmmaker Nicole Newnham received her first Oscar nomination for the feel-good documentary Crip Camp, which she co-wrote, produced, and co-directed with James Lebrecht. "Crip Camp was very challenging to get just right," Newnham reflects. "We taught ourselves a lot about how to take archival footage and create an immersive, character-driven world that the viewer could plunge into — challenging them to see things from a disabled point of view, and therefore, differently than some of them had ever seen before."
A graduate of the Stanford Documentary Film Program, Newnham is the director behind such enduring works as 2006's The Rape of Europa and 2013's The Revolutionary Optimists. Her latest feature is The Disappearance of Shere Hite, about iconoclastic feminist Shere Hite and her fight to liberate sexuality from its patriarchal confines.
"She has the charisma and intrigue of a Hitchcock heroine and is so compelling as a cinematic figure, because she was so in control of the creation of her image... Shere would be a fascinating role for an actress in a narrative film, but documentary is an especially powerful medium when the mere fact that something is real can itself provoke a sense of awe, or outrage, or joy," Newnham explains.
Amid the women's movement of the 1970s, Hite gained notoriety when she published "The Hite Report," a groundbreaking study intended to revolutionize sexuality for women and men. Instead, Hite was attacked and diminished and maligned in the press, and eventually forgotten to time. Newnham now hopes to restore her story with all of its complexities.
"Like Crip Camp and The Rape of Europa, the film explores an all too forgotten story out of history, one that has the capacity to provide a new and needed lens on an historical period we might think we can understand," she says, "and that resonates powerfully with the moment that we are in."
Below, Newnham shares with A.frame five films that had a profound effect on her, including the Oscar-winning documentary that inspired her to become a filmmaker herself.
Written and Directed by: Rob Epstein
In 1987, I walked into an auditorium in Oberlin College to see this documentary, and I emerged a changed person. I had never seen a film that so emotionally and powerfully let a community tell its own story of change. I felt I was in the story; I was not watching archival footage, I was immersed in it. There was a tenderness and a beauty to the storytelling that was just infused with love. It's not an exaggeration to say that watching that film changed the course of my life. It made me want to move to San Francisco and become a documentary filmmaker, which is what I did.
Written and Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Thankfully, in the mid-'90s, Satyajit Ray's masterpieces were put into cinemas, and I was able to see Charulata in the theater — an experience that has always stayed with me. It was a master class in two of the most important and difficult things to get right in filmmaking: Point of view and the passage of time. I can still remember the thrill of watching its famous 'swing scene' for the first time — the beauty of the focus on Charu's emotions as she swings, the shots of her bare feet, the camera taking her point of view. I was exhilarated by the power of its celebration of a character and a moment that would normally not be observed or noticed.
Directed by: Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens
I saw a projected print of this film in a tiny screening room in graduate school. In 1929, Ivens made this portrait of Amsterdam in the rain. Its evocative, simple beauty stunned me. For me, it's an early, unforgettable example of the magic of documentary editing, through which the rain and the city itself are the main characters, and their rhythms are the propulsive narrative force.
Written and Directed by: Terence Davies
This stunning narrative film captured my heart, piecing together fragments from a young boy's childhood in Liverpool in the 1950s. The film is so strongly from his point of view that I felt it took me back to the experience of perceiving the world as a child. The cinematography, with its heavy use of chiaroscuro, emphasizes each scene as a nodal memory. The point of view is filled with a child's tenderness and wonder, and I'm still awestruck by its masterful evocation of Bud's interior life, his imagination, and his longing for beauty and meaning.
Directed by: Luke Lorentzen
This film mesmerized me, it moved me, and I would say it also helped me, as a human being who struggles to come to terms with death and dying in a culture that denies it. Much of the power of documentary lies in simply bearing witness, and with his camera, Luke Lorentzen bears powerful witness to a hospital chaplain and her colleagues as they accompany and give comfort to dying patients.
His quiet, unobtrusive, loving, and compassionate approach to filming and the editing allows us to experience powerful, cathartic emotions, bringing us to an understanding beyond intellect about how our culture and our health care systems are failing patients going through the experience of dying. However, it's not devastating, because we are so moved by the efforts of those profiled in the hospital chaplain residency program, who step into that void and help.