AJFF What to Watch: Films About Women's Empowerment


From comedic turns to harrowing struggles, this mix of narratives and documentaries highlight a spectrum of women's stories and their resilience. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

93 Queen 
Tenacious ultra-Orthodox women challenge the status quo of their patriarchal community to create New York's first all-female ambulance corps, in this documentary featured at the 2019 AJFF. A practicing attorney and mother of six, Rachel Freier sets out to establish an alternative volunteer EMT service to offer emergency medical care for Hasidic women whose sense of modesty is informed by religious beliefs. Her efforts result in an ideological tug of war with the observant men in their Borough Park enclave, who fear a trojan horse of radical feminist ideas and erosion of gender roles. Refusing to yield, Rachel doggedly enlists an engaging cast of other Hasidic women grappling to balance their faith with nascent social progress in an uphill battle to launch this landmark endeavor. 

Ask Dr Ruth 
This documentary chronicles the incredible life of famed sex therapist and author Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who became an unlikely pop culture sensation. With her pint-sized frame, thick accent, and frank approach to sex education, this German-born, Jewish immigrant transformed the conversation around sexuality with her trademark exuberance, humor and boundless energy. As she approaches her 90th birthday and shows no signs of slowing down, the steely Dr. Ruth revisits her painful past, and path to beloved media personality at the forefront of the sexual revolution. Featuring interviews with family and colleagues, and a wealth of archival materials, this endearing documentary reveals the public and private life of a remarkable woman who overcame adversity to change the way Americans talk about sexuality.

The First Wives Club 
Bette Midler stars, alongside Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, as one of three women who reunite, newly bonded and motivated when their husbands leave them for younger women. Brenda's (Midler) suffering hits a high point when her ex-husband brings, to their son's bar mitzvah, his new girlfriend, as played by a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays her arm candy role with comedic zeal. 

On the Basis of Sex 
A young Ruth Bader Ginsburg works with her husband on her first landmark case of gender discrimination, taking strides to become the icon we know today. The film's premiere fell in line with Justice Ginsburg's 25th anniversary on the Supreme Court.

Working Woman 
This Israeli take on sexual harassment in the #MeToo era, brings nail-biting tension and squirm-inducing realism to the story of an ambitious young mother trapped between escalating office misogyny and financial strain at home, a nuanced depiction of gray workplace dynamics. Featured at the 2019 AJFF.

The Women's Balcony 
A mishap at a Jerusalem synagogue causes a major rift in a devout community, in this rousing, comical feminist narrative about speaking truth to patriarchal power. What begins as a joyous celebration turns into disaster, when a women's balcony at an Orthodox synagogue collapses during a bar mitzvah party, injuring a number of people and leaving the senior rabbi in a state of shock. Stepping in to assume authority in the face of crisis, the young and charismatic Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) first appears as a savior. His fundamentalist ways soon divide the close knit Sephardic congregation along gender lines, as the self-righteous interloper insists that the accident is a divine warning against female nonconformity. A battle of the sexes ensues, threatening to tear apart families and friends, including husband-and-wife congregational stalwarts Zion and Ettie (Igal Naor and Eveline Hagoel, who lead a fine ensemble cast). Featured at the 2017 AJFF.

Barbra Streisand’s magnum opus based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story, tells the story of a girl who defies tradition by disguising herself as a boy in order to pursue her passion for studying the Torah. Yentl is a Jewish girl who secretly studies the Talmud in early 1900s Eastern Europe. When her father dies, she disguises herself as a boy in order to receive an education. Studying among the Orthodox rabbis and yeshiva scholars, she falls in love with a fellow student (Mandy Patinkin), who is already engaged to a charming young woman (Amy Irving). A love triangle is formed as each character struggles with the truth of who they are and the roles they are meant to play.