From ‘9 to 5’ to José Andrés, SXSW Documentaries Tackle Urgent Issues Through Well-Known Names

At this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, three documentaries – Camille Hardman and Gary Lane’s “Still Working 9 to 5,” Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” and  Ron Howard’s “We Feed People” – use a celebrity lens to take a deep dive into hot button political issues.

Hardman’s “Still Working 9 to 5” explores the origins and success of the 1980 film “9 to 5,” which addresses gender inequality and discrimination in the workplace and stars Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman. All four stars appear in the docu to discuss the iconic comedy. Rita Moreno, who starred in the “9 to 5” television series, Allison Janney from the “9 to 5” Broadway show, and women’s movement activists also appear in the doc to discuss the movie and why gender parity in the workplace is still an issue forty-plus years after the release of “9 to 5.”

“I would categorize ‘Still Working 9 to 5’ as a political doc,” says Hardman. “But I think there’s a very fine line of keeping audiences engaged and allowing for a little bit of education without the film becoming too dogmatic, didactic, and feminist. We wanted to stick with the same philosophy of the original film, which is fun and has comedic elements because if you can educate someone through humor, it stays with people and they don’t walk away going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve just been beaten over the head.’”

Lane adds that, “We would feel like we accomplished something if we finally gave [‘9 to 5’] fans a sequel and if the [doc] helped women finally see the Equal Rights Amendment become a part of the Constitution.”

Cohen and West’s “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” grapples with the Constitution’s Second Amendment. While the CNN doc recounts former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s fight to recover following an assassination attempt in 2011, it also documents her emergence as one of America’s most powerful advocates for gun violence prevention.

“As President Obama says in the film, you would think that 20 children being slaughtered in a classroom would have prompted some reasonable gun safety legislation,” says West. “That didn’t happen, but what we loved learning about was the extent to which Gabby’s organization – Giffords – has had an impact around the country, state by state, in various reform measures.”

To tell Giffords’ story, Cohen and West relied on home movies taken during her hospital stay, current-day cinema verité footage documenting Giffords and husband, astronaut-turned-Senator Mark Kelly, as well as interviews with the couple and their friends and colleagues. Despite gun violence being a subject matter, the doc is an uplifting, inspiring watch.

“Many of the reforms that Gabby’s organization is fighting for when it comes to preventing gun violence haven’t come to fruition,” says Cohen. “Gabby has made great strides in recovery, but every day is still a challenge and yet she has this spirit of taking on challenges that makes you feel good when you’re with her. We wanted to bring that spirit that transcends so many obstacles she’s facing to audiences.”

Another fight is explored in Howard’s “We Feed People.” The docu examines the 10-year evolution of Michelin-starred celebrity chef José Andrés and his nonprofit organization World Central Kitchen, which makes and delivers food to people in need around the world following social disasters like Covid-19, and natural disasters caused by global warming. Andres’ fight to feed people in need doesn’t involve political red tape and bureaucracy, which often allows World Health Kitchen to respond to catastrophes more rapidly than government run agencies delivering aid.

Although initially reluctant about having a docu made about his organization, Andrés couldn’t resist Howard.

“I’ve been approached by many people who want to do something about this work that I do,” says Andrés. “I take this work very seriously, which is why I was hesitant about it being turned into something on film. But can you imagine Ron Howard telling you that he wants to make a documentary about you? It’s like ‘Cocoon’ but real life. It’s a dream come true.”

While the National Geographic docu addresses political matters like global warming and aid relief, Howard notes “We Feed People” is a bipartisan film.

“We are not coming down on the side of anything other than making decisions built around the intelligent, empathetic understanding of what fellow human beings are going through,” Howard says.

As for the doc’s impact, Andrés says, “I need to make sure that World Central Kitchen doesn’t become a big organization, because while they’re full of great people, those same people will tell you that the red tape in those organizations makes them less effective than they should be. What I’m trying to prove to them with our actions is that [providing aid] should not be so difficult.”

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