Julie Cohen has directed documentaries about congresswoman Gabby Giffords and non-binary human rights activist Pauli Murray, celebrity chef Julia Childs and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (For 2018's RBG, directors Cohen and Betsy West were Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary Feature Film.) Her body of work celebrates figures, predominantly women, throughout history who have gone largely unsung — or who Cohen believes deserve further exploration.
"Sometimes things do come to you," she reflects, "but, especially in the doc world, it's a big benefit having more of an opportunity to say, 'Hey, let's see what we can come up with, and try to make it happen.'"
Cohen's latest film, Every Body, is an exploration into the intersex community, centered on three individuals who have become leaders in advocating for a greater understanding of what it means to be intersex. "There would've been a time, even 10 years ago, where it would've been much more difficult to make a documentary on this subject," explains the filmmaker.
"As you've seen in the film, part of the problem is that people who are intersex either had not been told about their own medical history or, if they were told, they were told they needed to keep it a secret," Cohen adds. "I am not a fan of secrecy, as a documentary filmmaker and as a human being."
Below, Cohen shares with A.frame five films that "I love so much that I can't even stand it," she says. "I love them so much that I want everyone to stop everything they're doing and go watch them right now."
Directed by: Jonas Poher Rasmussen | Written by: Jonas Poher Rasmussen & Amin Nawabi
Since the movie came out, making people watch Flee has been one of my missions in life. Whenever anyone's looking for a documentary recommendation, I tell them to watch Flee. Which, of course, is not only documentary but also animated. And also, mostly in Danish.
I like a movie that makes you feel it. You care so much about everyone and, from the very beginning, it was so thoughtful. It just made you care so much about Amin. It's a story that goes in so many different directions. The humanness of it all and the way that the strands of his life are woven together is so beautiful. The scene in Sweden at the nightclub, where you think that his siblings are not going to be supportive after he comes out, and it goes in a direction you had not expected. That scene, every time, makes me stop. You have to cry for three minutes. And then, I actually have to rewind it and watch it again — just to cry again. Because it's a cry that you need.
Another thing that I think is beautiful about that film is that, although it's mostly animated, there are moments of archival historic footage very judiciously used. And when they come in, they're so powerful.
Directed by: Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes
The Janes is the documentary about the underground movement to get women abortions in the time before Roe. Obviously, a time that we are back in now. This doc should be so devastatingly depressing, and it is devastating in a way, but it's really fun. It's so upbeat. The people that they chose to interview are incredible. They have this Irish policeman character who was basically assigned to arrest people that were giving illegal abortions. They have the ladies who are learning how to do abortions themselves. It's an incredible movie. It's a total ride. It's a journey. Yes, you learn some stuff. Yes, there's a social issue part of it. But mostly, you want to feel it. It's the funniest illegal abortion movie you could ever make. I think they did such an incredible job.
Directed by: Gus Van Sant | Written by: Dustin Lance Black
My brother, Bruce Cohen, was one of the producers of Milk. I like movies that are pretty doc-ish, and that movie is doc-ish. Milk builds on the incredible earlier doc, The Times of Harvey Milk, which came out in 1984, when people really didn't know the Harvey Milk story. There are some scene recreations that you can really feel where the inspiration came from, and there's parts of that film that move you so deeply.
Sean Penn's whole performance is incredible. There's a scene after Harvey Milk is assassinated, where it seems like tens of thousands of most gay men, some women, some allies marching in the dark, all holding candles. And I know — from seeing the doc — I know that the footage that they created for that film actually mirrors very nicely the real footage. It's so beautiful, and they shot it. I guess I like films that make me cry. It's so beautifully done, combining the character portrait with this very true history that more people should know that don't. Way to go brother Bruce for that movie.
Written and Directed by: Boots Riley
This is what I love about Sorry To Bother You: It starts feeling like it's one thing. Like, it's a witty indie satire on the office space or something. It's even like a rom-com, LaKeith Stanfield is in love with Tessa Thompson, and you're really rooting for him. Everything's weird. And oh, it's a little quirky. And oh, you're laughing and it's all funny.
Then it takes this slide into something very, very different. It's sci-fi, horror, social satire. It's commentary about work, about race. And even though things have gotten so crazy, he took me right there with it. I'm still so into it. If you described this movie to me, I'd be like, 'I don't want to see that.' But it was great! And the fact that it completely changed into a different kind of movie was what made it the best. He's a genius. The movie's amazing. Everyone should see it. It's so weird.
Written and Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Again, very odd, but the classic Christopher Walken scene where Željko Ivanek is holding a huge gun and Christopher Walken is walking down a dusty highway. The thing is, you've seen a scene like that in a zillion movies. He holds up his big gun, 'Put your hands up.' And Christopher Walken just looks at him and says, 'No.' The guy's like, 'What?!' 'I said no.' 'Why not?' 'I don't want to.' 'That doesn't make any sense.' Then Christopher Walken says, 'Too bad.' It's the weirdest, craziest scene. I somehow find it empowering. Don't you wish you could be the kind of person that, if someone held a huge gun at you and said, 'Put your hands up,' you would just be like, 'No, I don't want to.'
So, that's great, as well as the whole period where Christopher Walken is with Sam Rockwell and Colin Farrell camping in Joshua Tree. Everything that happens is so crazy that — was there a script? Or did Martin McDonough just say, 'In every instance, do and say the craziest thing you can think of. That's what our movie will be.' I don't know. It probably was scripted, but it feels ad-libbed because it's so crazy. But it's also about something, and it's a very good Hollywood satire. It's an amazing movie. I love it so much.