By Katie Chambers
NYWIFT member Cheryl Staurulakis recognizes the power of documentary film to change hearts, minds, and even governmental policies – and it’s what drives her as a producer. Her latest film, Phyllis Ellis’s feature documentary Category: Woman, is a perfect example of Staurulakis’s commitment to social impact filmmaking. After her 2009 victory at the World Championships, South African runner Caster Semenya’s win came under invasive public scrutiny. When the International Amateur Athletics Federation (now World Athletics) ruled that targeted women with naturally high androgen levels must medically alter their bodies in order to compete, a generation of athletes have their lives and careers thrown into limbo.
The film takes a hard look into the racist and sexist policies in global sports and the devastating personal consequences they have inflicted on women athletes around the world. It made its international premiere in the “Game Face Cinema” category at DOC NYC 2022.
Staurulakis spoke to us about her DOC NYC screening, racial and gender discrimination in sports, and how she hopes to save the world one documentary at a time.
Congratulations on your DOC NYC international premiere screening! What does inclusion in the festival mean to you?
Having a project accepted by DOC NYC is an honor with it being the largest doc film fest in the US. It gave our film a large platform from which to launch. It also provided our stakeholders and those who have been working in this space for many years, much longer than we have, like Human Rights Watch and Athlete’s Ally, [an opportunity] to experience the incredible work they have been doing, with a captivated audience.
How did this project come about? And how did you get involved?
I worked with director Phyllis Ellis on the Emmy-nominated documentary Toxic Beauty. Phyllis was already filming Category: Woman and shared with me this project. She opened my eyes to these athletes and the human rights violations in high performance sport. It’s not a subject that a general audience is aware of, and our hope is that we can contribute to the impact which will lead to all sports federations adopting changes to these archaic regulations.
This film takes a hard look about why some athletes are celebrated without question, while others fall under the scrutiny of sports governing bodies for elements that are totally outside of their control. FYI for those who haven’t yet seen the film, it doesn’t tackle the more recent controversy regarding trans athletes in college sports, but instead looks at cisgender women athletes in Olympic-level championships whose bodies might be considered “not feminine enough” to qualify for a women’s category. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, it often comes down to race. Tell us more about this.
Racism, sexism, discrimination, [and] bodily automomy are all universal issues that the world is addressing, in the main, as a society. The world of sport is no different. Predominantly run by a privileged group of men at the top, international sport has a lot of important issues that they need to address as well. Equality and gender discrimination being at the top of the list.
This story, told by the brave champions in the film, are all from the Global South and while sex testing has been happening for almost 100 years at the elite level, only to women [not men] in both summer and winter sports, the women athletes who have been targeted in our film and in sport, are from these regions of the world.
How does this added scrutiny impact these women’s lives outside of sports? The film dives into this as well – the financial impact, the mental health impact, the social impact…
When your gender is questioned, people don’t forget, especially if you are “outed” in your home country, and often at the young age of 18. People don’t understand, and there is fear associated with this. As told in our film, many of these athletes have been shunned by their communities, not just in sport but in their home villages. They lose their income, which comes from sport and also supports their families. They are publicly humiliated and in some countries being “othered” threatens imprisonment or even death, and [is] why Ms. Negesa sought asylum in Berlin. And she can never return home. So not only has she lost her athletic career, which was her life, she also lost her home country and connection to her community and family. Starting over in a new country, not knowing the language, without almost any support, is very difficult. And all caused by sport, running, which is a staggering proposition in and of itself.
Who do you hope this film will reach, and what do you hope audiences will take away from seeing it?
We hope this film reaches all athletes internationally and all sports federations and we have the support of the incredible work of Human Rights Watch and their team to take this globally. We hope all athletes understand their rights, and their right to say no, in the face of adversity.
You founded Orama Filmworks to raise awareness of important world and domestic health, cultural, historic, and social issues. In what ways do you feel filmmaking can impact positive change?
I’ve discovered there is great power in film. We produced two HPV/cervical cancer docs and realized the great impact they had on audiences. When you can put a face to a story it’s much more powerful.
What’s next for you?
We have another documentary in the festival circuit called Out in the Ring. Out in the Ring explores the rise and history of LGBTQIA+ professional wrestlers and representation in the sport. Using a combination of interviews with LGBTQIA+ wrestling talents (past and present), allies & historians, archival footage, and rare photos, Out in the Ring uncovers the history of the pro wrestling industry and the rise of visibility for performers and fans around the world.
I’m trying to save the world by one documentary at a time….
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