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Based on a True Story

Last November I wrote here about a fabulous movie that told the little-known story of a number of the best back-up singers in the music business.  That film, 20 Feet from Stardom, just won a very well-deserved Oscar for Best Documentary (so you really should see it).

20 Feet from Stardom’s win got me thinking of other, perhaps little-known, gems that I might commend to you as well.  And since it’s Women’s History Month, I’ve taken as my focus films that are “based on a true story,” films that chronicle the rich real-life struggles of women.

So in no particular order….ten films to add to your “must-see” list. 

1.  Philomena

A nominee for Best Picture this year, Philomena is the powerful tale of an Irish woman searching for the son who the nuns at the Sean Ross Abbey forced her to give up.  Though it sounds like the film might tend towards the saccharine Lifetime movie genre, it is, instead, a robust examination of faith and doubt, of loss and forgiveness. Judi Dench, who plays the title character, imbues her with warmth and dignity, humor and humanity.  It’s a movie that has stayed with me in the weeks since I have seen it. 

2-5: A quartet of WW2 movies:

The Lady in Number 6

Paradise Road

War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us

Sarah’s Key

Maybe it’s my military upbringing, but I admit I have a special place in my heart for WW2 films, especially ones about women.  The first of these, The Lady in Number 6, is also an Oscar winner this year (for best short documentary).  It chronicles the life of Alice Herz-Sommer—the oldest Holocaust survivor (until her death just a couple of weeks ago at the age of 110).  Herz-Sommer was also an accomplished pianist, and the film tells of how she survived Theresienstadt concentration camp with the help of her music.  More than that, however, in just 36 minutes, the film records a life full of joy and gratitude.  You’ll want to meet Alice. 

Music plays a central role, too, in the film, Paradise Road.  An all-star cast including Glenn Close, Julianna Marguiles, Frances McDormand, and Cate Blanchett, this 1997 film is the story of an assorted group of women from a variety of nationalities who, in fleeing Singapore in 1942, are captured and interred on the island of Sumatra by the Japanese.  In tracing their movement through a series of ever more depressing camps and living conditions, the film focuses on their resistance when they form a soul-stirring “vocal orchestra.”  The music performed is taken from actual transcripts made by the women on whom the film is based.  This is one of my favorite movies, and I’ve always lamented it is not better known.  

I’ll admit: War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us is probably too difficult to acquire (though it is available for order from the film maker).  Still, I include it here because it is best example of oral history I have ever seen.  Presenting the lives of 7 women from New Zealand—from a range of social and ethnic backgrounds—War Stories gives an incredibly rounded picture of women’s lives during WW2.  An honest and unsentimental look at the war years and women’s particular experiences within it. 

And finally, Sarah’s Key, based on the novel of the same title by Tatiana de Rosnay. The film is split between the present-day journalistic investigations of Julia and flashback scenes of what she is investigating: the 1942 Vel d’Hiv Round-up of Jews in German-occupied Paris.  The story narrates not only a long-overlooked incident from French history, but also asks how we survive in the face of great suffering—whether our own or what we have come to know about.  What are the consequences of history?

6.  The Invisible Woman

This film had a very brief appearance in theatres this winter—but disappeared quickly.  Based on work of the wonderful biographer Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman presents the story of Ellen Ternan, Charles Dickens’ mistress in the last years of his life.  Starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as Ellen, this quite somber film asks important questions about what it means to be “the other woman,” and it is particularly clever in narrating the film in Ellen’s post-Dickens years—when she remakes herself, lying about her age and her past relationship with Dickens. Like Sarah’s Key, the film asks us to consider how we live in the aftermath of brokenness.  

7.  The Prizewinner of Defiance, OH

This is another film that I’m always surprised more people haven’t seen.  From 2005 (but based on the memoir of the daughter of the main character), it stars Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson.  Moore plays Evelyn Ryan, a 1950s Ohio housewife with ten children and an alcoholic husband.  It’s a lesson in pre-feminism as it narrates Evelyn’s struggles to support the family by entering contests.  As Roger Ebert said in a review at the time, it “avoids obvious sentiment and predictable emotion and shows this woman somehow holding it together year after year, entering goofy contests that for her family mean life and death.” 

8.  Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham might make a good double feature with Prizewinner around the theme of “you’ve come a long way, baby.”  The film compellingly tells of the 1968 strike at a British Ford factory by the 187 women who worked as upholsterers.  Paid starkly different wages then their male colleagues, the women begin an industrial action that leads to far-reaching changes. 

9.  The Lady

Not a perfect film, by any means, but The Lady is nevertheless an inspiring introduction to the life and sacrifice of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her peaceful struggle for Burmese democracy.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Michelle Yeoh gives a strong, yet nuanced, performance as Suu Kyi. 

10.  Zero Dark Thirty

On the flip side of peaceful protest and a life under house arrest is Zero Dark Thirty. Not really a “hidden gem,” per se, given its Oscar nominations.  But I include it because I think it provides a provocative impetus for discussions about female power–its uses and abuses, its deployment and its reception. 

Frederick Buechner says the story of one of us is the story of us all.  May these films give you new stories (hopefully, at least one) to enrich and expand the narratives we tell about who women are and what they can do.


NB: I’ve included links to each of the films so you can watch the trailer of each film, if you like. Click on the film title to see the trailer and learn more about each film.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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