Daughters of Eve is a new documentary film that sets out to dismantle misogyny and gender hierarchy within Christianity. The film has already won awards at the Black Swan International Film Festival and the Toronto International Women’s Film Festival.
Director Zanah Thirus has been named one of Diversity in Cannes’ Top 10 Filmmakers of the Decade. I sat down with Zanah over Zoom recently to ask her more about making the film. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
WIT: I loved Daughters of Eve! It’s really beautiful. You say in the film that you made this for your younger self; what journey have you been on that allowed you to make this film?
ZT: I grew up in a really strict Christian religious household. It was interesting because even though my parents encouraged me to follow my dreams and I could do whatever it is that I put my mind to, there was a very clear difference in women’s roles versus men’s roles and God’s intention for men versus God’s intention for women. We talked about purity all the time, but that was always applicable to girls—I never saw boys walking around with purity rings. I just started to question a lot, from a very, very young age. I jokingly say that I was a feminist before I even knew what that term was. I didn’t have the terminology to understand what feminism was, or intersectionality and the importance of Black feminism and how it really does look at someone’s race, gender, class, and sexuality and how those are all interconnected. I didn’t have that language, but I always moved in that way, based on the notion that I didn’t think that girls were any less than boys. Any time I questioned [patriarchy], I was either reprimanded for questioning God or not given a real reason. This film was not made for awards or flashy things like that; the purpose of it is educational material, specifically for churches, theology programs, organizations, non-profits that are bridging the gap between social justice and faith. I wanted it to be learning material that was very rooted in Scripture, but also rooted in education—that was the purpose of the film because I didn’t have that when I was younger. This was something that I needed when I was seven, eight years old, ready to just burn everything down [laughs]. Being able to give this gift to my younger self was the motivation behind making the film.
Seeing the women, especially Black women, that you feature on the film who are priests or experts in their fields—was that something that your younger self would not have seen, these women speaking authoritatively about Scripture?
What’s interesting is that I did see a lot of that growing up. I did see a lot of women pastors, Black women pastors, that still would preach, even to their own detriment. It wasn’t about not seeing representations of myself; it was about seeing women in church leadership, Black women in church leadership, that did not feel like they had to take a second place to male headship. That’s what it was really about. I can’t say I didn’t see or learn from Black women pastors all the time.
The film covers a lot of material. As a director, did you have strategies for helping your audience to access all of that information in a short time?
Yes. This is the third educational documentary that I’ve done; one was on recovering from sexual trauma, the other one was on Black feminism and intersectionality, and this is the first faith and feminism film that I’ve done. I always start all of my films with a production deck that outlines topics in chapters. There was a lot of brainstorming and reading different books and piecing together the umbrella topics that I really wanted to cover, starting with the Creation story. This is usually the first story that we hear pertaining to women and womanhood in Christianity. This is always taught from a very young age—this is the first thing that is preached to us. So I wanted to start there. I looked at that as God’s overall intention for women and how we could take a feminist lens to that story. I also really wanted to unpack the historical context of things—the time period, the language, the translations—before we began diving into our interpretations. The historical context preamble, the Creation story, and then I went straight into the apostles and Christ, and then following that, I went into purity culture, and rounded it out with incredible women of the Bible. In a way, it was in chronological order, but there were really certain umbrella topics that I chose that were centered around the myths, misconceptions, and misinformation that I was constantly hearing, which people often say is why they left the Church. I wanted to really hone in on those things specifically. I’m sure there was so much more that we could have covered and could have unpacked but people don’t have long attention spans; I was very adamant about keeping this film one hour long. Most importantly, it encourages people to go and do the research for themselves. A lot of people watch this film and they feel like “Oh, I want to go read the Bible now,” or “I want to go research this,” or “I want to reinterpret the way that I look at this particular passage,” and that’s the overall goal of the film.
You interview theologians in the film, but I’d also argue that the film itself is doing theology by taking these different ideas and piecing them together. Are you comfortable thinking of yourself as a theologian in making this film, or thinking of the film as theology?
I’m definitely comfortable thinking of the film as theology. I haven’t even wrapped my head around considering myself as a theologian, to be honest. I love that idea, though; I really do. One of my favorite sayings is, “Nobody in the Bible had a Bible.” There’s a lot of interpretation that had to happen over thousands of years. It’s not about being able to insert ourselves into these stories because they already happened; these were people’s experiences. Being able to apply these stories to everyday life in a historically accurate, contextually accurate way is the best way to go about interpreting Scripture and I guess that would be my basis for it, really just understanding the historical context, the origin, the time period, what rules and laws were in place at the time that made people think or do the things that they did, and how a lot of that isn’t applicable today because people aren’t doing those things!
I also really do believe in bringing different voices together. I identify as a Black feminist or an intersectional feminist; there are a lot of women in the film who identify as Womanist. There are some people who identify as just feminist; there are some people who stray away from the term altogether. But we had a common goal of wanting to dismantle patriarchy and misogyny within our faith, and I think that was really important. I think we sometimes get caught up in the different variations and definitions, but I also think that we neglect how exclusive and sometimes not intersectional a lot of feminist spaces are. So I wanted to bring a lot of different voices to the table, a lot of different backgrounds, a lot of different theologies, and find a through-line because I think that there’s more commonalities than not.
The film is so beautiful. How did the aesthetic side contribute to what you wanted to say? I also noticed that all of the performers are Black women—could you speak to that?
I wanted this film to be beautiful. Oftentimes when we talk about a very heavy topic like “Let’s unpack the wrongdoings of the misogyny that has been permeating our faith since the beginning of time,” that’s an ugly subject. That’s not something anyone wants to sit down and have tea over! So I wanted to serve this in a way that was digestible, understandable, and welcoming. And I wanted to do that through beauty. So for me, the B-roll was a huge part of the film—creating an aesthetic that was regal, that was very light, that was very feminine, that was very dainty and precious. Those were the ideas that I brought into it. I never got to see Black women cellists growing up. I was a ballerina, I danced ballet for nine years, and I was the only Black girl in my class. So it was really important for me, again, thinking back to my younger self, what I would have needed to see and would have loved to see and putting that on display. So that was definitely the influence behind it.
The setting was so beautiful, too.
Thank you! We filmed it in one location—the Epiphany Center for the Arts. It’s a really old church in Chicago, but it’s several floors, and we just filmed it on a different floor each day. It was great. We filmed it in four days.
I know the film is still quite new, but what kind of reception has it had? Have you seen it doing some of the things you wanted it to do, in terms of starting questions?
Yes! Yes, it has. We have several upcoming screenings for Women’s History Month, and we have writers, bloggers, people who have just watched it or rented it, and I’ve got nothing but really awesome feedback for the film. And a lot of people saying, “Oh I need to go back and re-read this or look at this again.” It’s so special to me because that was the point of the film. For a lot of my projects, there’s a big media push and then it’s festival after festival. This, I think, is very different because as long as Christianity exists this is going to be a relevant film, and so it’s more important for me to be strategic about the audience that it gets to and accompany screenings with facilitated discussions, interviews, things like that, to really help people unpack it. We’ve had really incredible reception so far and we’re looking forward to keeping a steady pace—not a faster pace, just a steady pace with distribution.
When you were making the film, did you envision the audience as hostile or reluctant to hear your message, or eager to hear it?
That’s a good question. I always lean into those that will be receptive first. People that were a part of the film were pastors, they all have congregations or groups of people who love them, who support them, so they will share it with their network. And then those people will share it with their network. And I went into this knowing that there would be an audience for this because we haven’t necessarily had this conversation available in one space. This is not a film where I’m looking to argue. This is a film made for those who are going to be receptive to it. Leaning into that, and knowing that there is an audience for that, I think that’s why I’m not really concerned if there are any naysayers or trolls or whatever comes along with the territory.
Daughters of Eve is available to rent at www.daughtersofevefilm.com/rentfilm and is also available for educational licensing or public screenings. You can also follow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DOEFilm.