Arizona has outlawed teaching students about the likes of Latina labour organizer Dolores Huerta, but you have to wonder why legislators bothered: History has done a pretty good job already of relegating the co-founder of the United Farm Workers to the shadows. In Mexican-American history, Cesar Chavez is a secular saint; Huerta is a footnote.
It was in 2010 that Arizona passed a bill banning ethnic studies in state schools, a vindictive attempt to limit Mexican-American programs in Tucson after Huerta, in the midst of a legislative crusade against undocumented immigrants in 2006, had told one student group "Republicans hate Latinos." No doubt Huerta took the snub in her stride; after all, her own union had already decided to pass her over in favour of a male leader after Chavez's death in 1993, and she had used that as an opportunity to return to her roots in community organizing.
Her story is told in Dolores, a U.S. documentary making its international premiere at Hot Docs. She was, according to this film by Peter Bratt, the person who first said, "Si, se puede," the phrase often attributed to Chavez and repeated by presidential candidate Barack Obama as "Yes, we can." She co-founded the UFW with Chavez and lead the 1960s boycott of Californian grapes that finally forced growers to the bargaining table.
A crusader for her people, her instinctive anti-abortionism made her slow to unite her cause with that of the feminist movement; she was the mother of 11 children, whom she sometimes parked with strangers when she went off to organize. Today, several of them cannot speak on-camera of her absence from their childhood without tears.
This year's Hot Docs festival is packed with biographies of remarkable women, films animated by stories of people whose career paths were blocked by sexism and misogyny. But these are also films that have to take note of tough personal compromises that hurt other people badly. Hot Docs 2017 reveals how problematic female biography can be.
Most problematic of all is Winnie, an attempt to rehabilitate South African anti-apartheid crusader Winnie Mandela, the woman who keep the fight alive while her husband, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, languished in prison for three decades.
You would have to be well-versed in recent South African political history to pick apart the conspiracy theory advanced by this doc, but the way it moves swiftly over accusations of kidnapping, murder and abuse of power is in itself suspicious. Everything from the hagiography offered by Winnie's own daughter to how filmmaker Pascale Lamche has edited the accounts by apartheid-era security officers triggers skepticism, and the film's one-sidedness includes several missed opportunities. For example, it passes over the accusations of infidelity against Winnie in a single sentence, avoiding a telling topic. What man would be required to remain celibate while his wife was imprisoned for 27 years?
What's compelling about Winnie are the larger lines of its narrative: while Nelson Mandela was inside prison, Winnie lived in the vicious outside world, using the prestige of her position as his wife to risk protesting an increasingly brutal government. She fought a dirty war, especially against perceived traitors in her own ranks, and when he emerged from prison, the compromises of the postapartheid political handover demanded that she be vilified as a hardliner so that he could be canonized as a moderate. No wonder he had to divorce her. For all her obvious failings – she refers to herself in the third person at one point in this film – she is a fascinating subject.
It must have hurt like hell to watch Mandela claim the presidency without standing at his side, but Winnie is nobody's victim. Viewers can puzzle over whether the same claim can be made of the flamenco dancer La Chana.
La Chana, Lucija Stojevic's biography of the Catalan flamenco legend, relies almost exclusively on interviews with the woman herself, alongside fabulous archival footage of the dancer setting the stage on fire in the 1960s and '70s. Her initial success was explosive, but she explains that her husband and manager was so emotionally abusive, he forbade her from accepting an offer from Hollywood in 1967 and then forced her from the stage altogether in the 1970s.
How much was lost? It's hard to say, since this film has little to tell us about her return to the stage in the 1980s after her husband abandoned her and their daughter in penury. What's more inspiring is her decision to make a comeback today: disabled by diabetes and a bum knee, she performs seated in a chair, but the presence of a being who lives only to dance is unmistakeable.
Where did that leave her daughter? She is shown here as a middle-aged woman perfectly at ease with her old mom, but she too remarks on the absence of her celebrated mother during her childhood. It's a recurring motif in these films.
Our sympathy for the subject of The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche must surely be diminished by the neglected Canadian novelist's odd attempts at playing mother. She and her dear companion Caroline Clement – the two women enjoyed a Boston marriage that one relative, protesting against the evidence, insists wasn't lesbian – adopted two young children, almost as accessories, it seems. De la Roche apparently took little interest in the boy and girl as they grew older and refused to explain their parentage to them. The daughter is shown in this 2011 doc (included as part of a retrospective of work by Canadian filmmaker Maya Gallus) frankly stating that "Mazo" never functioned as her mother.
It is with a certain relief, then, that a viewer can turn to Thérèse Clerc, French feminist and crusader for sexual and reproductive rights. In a documentary made, at her own insistence, at the very end of her life, she appears at peace both with herself and with the four children who witnessed first-hand her transformation from bourgeois housewife and stay-at-home mother to a militant lesbian feminist with a taste for communal living. In The Lives of Thérèse, her decision to have Sebastien Lifshitz's camera film her decline speaks of an honesty about life's compromises and a generosity of spirit that soothes the pain of those left behind, whether during her busy life or after her approach to death.
Clerc, who died last year, belonged to the feminist generation who argued vociferously that the personal is political. On the road to achievement, men also make lots of large sacrifices and bitter compromises in their private and public lives, but unless women have equal social, domestic and emotional support, female biography will inevitably prove more torturous.
Dolores, Winnie, La Chana, and The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche play Hot Docs this week.