Welcome to our 12th annual curated list of thought-provoking and powerful documentaries, feature films and television series that depict violence against women (VAW) in various forms.
Every year, we select films or TV series that depict issues related to VAW which need more awareness, attention or discussion. This year, we have included shows that tackle lesser-known types of VAW such as obstetric violence, the “comfort women” of World War II, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), as well as those that focus on unfortunately familiar issues such as femicide and domestic violence.
As with our lists for the past couple of years, the majority of this year’s list comprises films and series that were released over the past two to three years and that are available on streaming networks. There are also a selection of older releases. What many of the films and series have in common this year is that they examine what happens when women have had enough (do they fight back or seek justice, for example?) and if they are afforded the justice they deserve.
We hope that these films, documentaries and TV series not only make you think about gender-based violence in new ways but also inspire you to examine traditions and social mores and take action to stop VAW in your own community.
Introduction by Anushia Kandasivam. Written and compiled by Anushia Kandasivam with additional research, curation, and content by Regina Yau.
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Film Selection #1: A Question of Silence (1982)
A Question of Silence was highly controversial when it debuted but won several awards and is now considered a feminist classic. This four-decade-old Dutch psychodrama is an immersive exploration of women navigating a patriarchal world and an interesting exercise in what might happen if they snap under that strain. In this film, three women who are strangers – an isolated housewife, a secretary in a predominantly male office and a “tough girl” waitress at a local café – murder a male shopkeeper who was also previously unknown to them. A criminal psychologist is assigned to the case to determine whether or not the three suspects are sane. Interestingly, her study of the women and her subsequent report to the court (all conducted objectively and professionally), are met with increasingly emotional responses by the men around her, including her husband, the lawyers and the judge. The film seems to treat the premise and conclusion that women have had enough as obvious only to the women in the film (and those watching), leaving the men confused and frustrated.
Film selection #2: Alice, Darling (2022)
Alice, Darling is an immersive psychological thriller about a woman trapped in a toxic relationship with a man who uses coercive control as his main abuse tactic. Her friends notice that she is distracted and becoming less and less her vivacious self while she is with him. Things come to a head when they invite her to a weekend away – he turns up at their holiday home and everything slowly spirals out of control. The film’s masterful depiction of coercive control works brilliantly on two levels. Firstly, it very starkly shows how Alice goes out of her way to perform mental gymnastics to justify her partner’s demands on her attention, time and body, interpreting them as love and affection. Secondly, it skilfully triggers a sense of frustration in the viewer at the situation because while it is obvious to her two best friends and the viewer that she is being controlled and manipulated by her partner, Alice remains in denial. Though somewhat distracted by a subplot, this film is a tense and riveting depiction of a person slowly being suffocated by the pressures of a toxic relationship and a man who is only interested in controlling her.
Film Selection #3: And So I Stayed (2022)
This award-winning documentary is about women in the U.S. who have survived domestic violence and are now in prison for killing their abusers. The film focuses on the lived experiences of three women who fought back against their partners after years of abuse. The film examines institutional failures such as how even extensive evidence of abuse is insufficient to convince a jury that one of the women’s actions were justified, how society ignores abuse that takes place literally right in front of their eyes, and why the women stayed with their abusive partners for as long as they did. While pop culture tends to portray women who kill their partners as devious or insane, the filmmakers – one of whom is a survivor herself who lost a sister to domestic violence – give a voice to women who have survived domestic violence, only to be punished by the law for daring to defend themselves.
Film selection #4: Consent (2023)
Inspired in part by Everyone’s Invited, an online platform where survivors of rape and sexual assault anonymously share their stories, this series is about how insidious sexual assault has become in the UK education system – where 59% of girls and young women between 13 and 21 say they have experienced sexual harassment at school or college. Set in a posh private school, the story follows sixth form scholarship student Natalie who harbours a crush on the Oxbridge-bound star pupil Archie. But Archie’s friends use a WhatsApp group where they share links to porn to constantly pressure him into having sex. What happens next is both expected and shocking: Archie shares a video to prove he has had sex with Natalie. But a few days later, Natalie confronts him saying she does not remember anything, leaving Archie confused and upset. Things start to fall apart from there, with Natalie being believed and not believed. The series shows how traumatising such incidents can be for both the victim and the people around her, and how institutions that appear to be open and accepting shut their doors when something like this happens.
Film selection #5: Dear Child (2023)
In this German thriller series, a severely injured and unidentifiable young woman is brought to a hospital after a hit-and-run. Even more bizarre is the little girl with her, who says the woman is her mother but remains eerily calm and coolly observant of everything the adults around her do. A connection is found between the woman and a missing persons case from 13 years ago and viewers soon learn that the woman and girl, along with a little boy, have spent years locked in a windowless house at the mercy of a horrifying captor. While the premise may sound similar to that of Room (which was on our 2016 list), this story has more mysterious twists. Although she answers to the same name, the injured woman is not the one who went missing 13 years ago and it becomes obvious to the viewer that the girl has been brainwashed into believing that doing whatever her captor wants is the correct way to behave. Dramatic and dark, the series is an compelling mystery that shows how male entitlement and toxic masculinity can escalate into horrific violence. On the flip side, it is also cathartic as it shows how women can find strength and exact revenge. This series is available to stream on Netflix.
Film selection #6: Justice (2023)
High-profile sexual assault cases have been coming out of the woodwork with increasing frequency since Donald Trump became President of the US in 2017 .One of the most talked-about (and shocking because of the position of the accused) is that of American Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by several women of sexual assault on separate occasions. This documentary follows the investigations into the accusations, including testimonies from the survivors and audio recordings of corroborating evidence. While there is no dramatic revelation of new evidence or a smoking gun, the film presents painstaking analyses of the facts and evidence by lawyers, psychologists, journalists and friends, painting a picture of how a powerful and privileged man can sway public opinion and support. And even more damning is that this is a case study on how the systems of justice and power fail those whom they are supposed to serve.
Film selection #7: Luckiest Girl Alive (2022)
Women’s magazine editor Ani Fanelli has the perfect life because she has worked hard at reinventing herself and building a façade. When a documentary director contacts her about making a film about the school shooting she survived as a teenager, things start to fall apart and the childhood trauma that she thought she had buried deep, resurfaces. It is quickly revealed that Ani has survived more than a school shooting – she was attacked when she was a student at the same school and then, perhaps worse, not believed. While this thriller does fall back on tropes, some of them admittedly tired, the slow build to the intense drama at the end is entertaining and cathartic. Ani herself is not a typical survivor – she is sharp-witted, successful, abrasive and unlikeable, but clearly (at least to the viewer) suffering from PTSD and tremendous pain. But even easier to hate are her attackers (both as entitled boys and smug men), or the elements of society who victim-blame and vilify her. This film is available to stream on Netflix.
Film selection #8: Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017)
This award-winning Indonesian thriller film is a “satay Western” – shot in Western style with a feminist undertone and set in rural Indonesia. True to the genre, there are depictions of gender-based violence. The protagonist Marlina is visited by a gruesome robber and his gang and is forced to cook for them. She poisons the food, then kills the gang leader while he is raping her. Then she calmly wraps his head in cloth and begins the long journey to the police station. Marlina remains composed throughout most of the film and when she does cry, the camera affords her privacy and does not show her face. She is in control of her agency and dignity and, as with the other women she meets along the way who have their own problems – a jealous husband, a dowry to be paid – she seeks her own revenge. The film has received praise for not giving in to patriarchal depictions of rape or the sexist stereotype of female hysteria in the face of male violence.
Film selection #9: Murder in Bighorn (2023)
The issue of murdered and missing indigenous women (MMIW) is one that stubbornly remains inadequately addressed in North America and indeed, anywhere in the world. This three-part documentary series shines a spotlight on the epidemic of cases involving disappeared and murdered native women, girls and two-spirits and the lack of investigation and follow up by the authorities in Montana in the US. The series focuses on three cases in the area, painting a harrowing picture of what life as a young Indigenous woman is like and takes a deep dive into the community, with interviews with family members, law enforcement, lawyers, local journalists and community leaders. The three stories seem similar, even repetitive, but that only serves to show how pervasive these crimes are and why Native activists and leaders continue to battle for justice.
Film selection #10: My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018)
The Korean word gangnammiin (Gangnam beauty) is a derogatory term for people whose physical attractiveness looks like the result of plastic surgery. This South Korean series follows a university student who went through cosmetic surgery to escape from the derision of her bullies only to be ridiculed for her artificial look. While it remains a light comedy most of the time – it is based on a webtoon – the series has been praised for addressing serious social issues current in South Korea, including unrealistic beauty standards and expectations for women, domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and online harassment. The main character is unusual for a K-drama in that she is not witty, rich or (naturally) beautiful – in fact, she is annoyingly passive – but she grows into her personality and by the end of the series finds her confidence and stands up for herself. This series is available to stream on Netflix.
Film selection #11: My Name is Happy (2022)
In 2015, shortly after 19-year-old Mutlu Kaya advanced to the final round of a popular nationally-televised Turkish singing competition, an ex-boyfriend jealous over her burgeoning career, shot her in the head. Mutlu, whose name means “happiness”, spent weeks in a coma while her would-be murderer was sentenced to 15 years in jail. This documentary tells her story and confronts the prevalence of femicide in Turkey, where conservative attitudes and patriarchal oppression battle with modernity. This “inspiring yet sobering documentary” showcases how families like Mutlu’s live in institutionalised patriarchy and male violence. While she eventually survived her attack, learning to walk and speak again; Mutlu’s sister was actually killed by her own boyfriend. Mutlu had also received death threats from other people for appearing on the show. While Mutlu’s (and her sister’s) assailants received apt punishment, most male abusers in Turkiye get away with a slap on the wrist. Nevertheless, the film maintains a determinedly hopeful note, focusing on Mutlu’s determination and drive to be a voice for other women.
Film selection #12: Noise (2023)
This Mexican film follows the attempts of Julia to find her daughter, who has been missing for nine months. She soon realises that her quest and her trauma are not unique – many people across Mexico are experiencing the same thing as a result of the country’s incredibly high rates of femicide, where 10 women are killed every day in Mexico. The film follows Julia’s journey and that of other people like her – family members yearning to learn the truth and picketing to protest the inefficient Mexican police system, inherent cultural misogyny, widespread corruption and abysmal lack of political will that prevents missing women from being found in time, or their deaths to be investigated properly. A dark and compelling watch, Noise is yet another film pushing the issue of femicide in front of the eyes of the world.
Film selection #13: Push Comes to Shove – Stories of Obstetric Violence (2022)
This five-part documentary series by South African NGO Embrace, the Movement for Mothers, features stories about obstetric violence which is a pervasive issue in many countries in Africa. Through this series, Embrace sought to provide mothers a platform to share their first-hand experiences of obstetric violence and to process their trauma. The series touches on the violations and abuses experienced by women and birthing people during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period, including the lack of informed consent and denial of access to proper healthcare. In South Africa, the series has generated discussion about the intersectionality of obstetric violence as gender-nonconforming people, women living with HIV, unmarried women and migrant women are more likely to experience obstetric violence at the hands of caregivers.
Film selection #14: Twenty Two (2017)
In 1931, Japan began their occupation of China’s northeast regions during which as many as 35 million Chinese were killed or wounded by invading Japanese troops. One of the worst atrocities committed by the Japanese invaders was forcing women and girls into sex slavery as “comfort women”. This documentary is about the 22 remaining “comfort women” survivors in China and aims to give a voice to the powerless and marginalised survivors of this horrific war crime who have never been acknowledged or apologised to by the Japanese government. The film has renewed discussion about the issue of “comfort women’ in China, with younger people praising it as a way to preserve a part of their history that should not be forgotten, and to learn about the long quest for justice that these women have been on.
Film selection #15: Under the Banner of Heaven (2022)
This American true crime limited series is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. It follows two detectives (one of whom is Mormon) who investigate the brutal murder of a young woman and her child in Utah and the crime’s connections to her husband’s deeply-religious Mormon family and church. The series has received rave reviews and come under intense criticism for being “one of the most openly hostile treatments of a minority religious group to appear in popular American entertainment this century”. Regardless, it remains an important watch that raises questions about the dangers of blindly following faith and dogma, especially in a patriarchal religious institution which encourages women to stay in abusive relationships and breeds toxic masculinity towards women and girls as well as men and boys. This series is available on Hulu and can also be viewed on Disney+ in selected regions.
Film selection #16: Women Talking (2022)
This film is based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews which was in turn inspired by the real-life rapes in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. In the film, the women and girls of this isolated remote and rural religious community have discovered that the men (condoned and joined by the community elders) have been using livestock tranquiliser to subdue and rape them. For years they have been told by the elders – literally the patriarchy – that the attacks were the work of ghosts and demons (as they were sinners) or just hysteria (“wild female imagination”). A small group of women are chosen by the women of the community to debate three options: stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. This Socratic debate is sombre, vibrant and engaging. Every so often the film refocuses on individuals, showing that each woman’s trauma, while similar; is also uniquely different. In the end, whichever fate they choose for themselves, the women find hope and, hopefully, redemption.
The picture used is a Creative Commons image: