Book Review: Lady Director by Joyce Chopra

by Stephanie Gemmell

John Grierson famously defined documentary filmmaking as “the creative treatment of actuality,” concisely capturing the purportedly objective aims of documentary in relationship with the artistic decision-making inherent to the filmmaking process. Nonfiction writing could be viewed in a similar vein, sharing the goal of telling a story with impartiality but also requiring the author to make countless creative choices about its presentation. In the case of memoir writing, these creative choices become infinitely more personal, making the task of writing an honest and engaging memoir a uniquely complex challenge for any artist.

Given the intrinsic similarities between documentary and memoir, it should come as no surprise that a seasoned documentary filmmaker—whose earliest film also happened to be autobiographical—would pen an excellent memoir.

Joyce Chopra’s memoir Lady Director offers powerful and personal insights into the life and creative development of a seminal documentary and feature filmmaker. Forthcoming from San Francisco’s City Lights Publishers in November, Chopra’s book is the rare type of memoir that synthesizes vivid narrative, self-awareness, and authorial humility to create a truly meaningful and impactful book.

While Lady Director could be classified as a written form of cinéma-vérité, Chopra’s storytelling also invites the reader into her memories in an intentional way. This balance between clear chronological biography and artful narrative makes this memoir a valuable artifact of nonfiction that is also an engaging read from beginning to end.

Chopra’s strength and acquired decisiveness as an artist enables her to vividly describe experiences, interactions, thoughts, and ideas, welcoming the reader into the different settings of her life. One of the early narrative strengths of Lady Director involves Chopra’s detail in recounting her life as a young woman in Boston, opening and operating Club 47 with her friend Paula. In discussing this period of her life as a young adult, Chopra is particularly frank about her self-doubts and creative insecurity, a move that quickly establishes Chopra’s approachable and inviting narrative voice. She also expertly conveys the evolution of her own artistic career aspirations in conjunction with her life and career experiences as a young woman.

Chopra sought to establish herself as a filmmaker at a time when the field was not only male-dominated, but male-exclusive. In several instances, reading the details of the professional injustices and disrespect directed at Chopra by powerful (male) collaborators at varying stages in her career (including demeaning interactions with such figures as Harvey Weinstein) will likely provoke readers’ frustration and indignation on Chopra’s behalf. Notably, Chopra is candid in describing her emotions in response to such challenging experiences in both her professional life as well as her personal life, accentuating her credibility as a memoirist. But even in the face of denigration and outright sexism, Chopra repeatedly refused to be outdone and persisted in establishing herself as a talented filmmaker.

At its core, Lady Director is a sincere book about a woman creating her own path in the world, building her artistic and professional trajectory in an industry undeniably hostile to her presence.

Joyce Chopra’s narratives in Lady Director struck me much more personally than I had expected, particularly as she describes her initial projects as a young filmmaker and the increasing intensity of challenges she faced even while building momentum in her career and establishing her professional reputation. For me, as a woman working toward a creative career in a creative industry with less than 3 percent of content produced by women, the experience of reading Lady Director was especially impactful.

Chopra directly references being asked by young women about how she maintained her determination and resilience despite the hostility she faced throughout her career, especially given a lack of female representation or role models when Chopra entered the film industry. Not only does this memoir provide valuable insights into Chopra’s own motivation and creative tenacity, but it demonstrates—without platitudes or vague cliches—how an individual can envision and fulfill her own goals.

For these reasons, Lady Director will likely hold a unique value for young individuals setting out to establish themselves as professionals in industries that may be less than inviting. Moreover, this memoir should assume its rightful place among core texts in film studies, based on the significant insights Chopra’s perspective provides regarding the evolution of the film industry and documentary filmmaking in particular.

While Joyce Chopra’s humility remains palpable throughout her narration, there is no denying that this memoir tells the story of a trailblazer. Chopra’s lived experiences could easily evoke notions of “being what you want to see in the world” or becoming your own role model, and elements of these ideas do naturally emanate from many of Chopra’s anecdotes.

However, the specificity and candor of Chopra’s writing enables her to illustrate that creating a new path for yourself, little by little, is not an easy or painless experience. It demands grit, determination, resilience, and boldness. And it requires a belief—even a faint belief—that whatever dream you’re pursuing is achievable. Joyce Chopra would probably tell you that it is.

STEPHANIE GEMMELL is a writer and composer currently living in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been featured in Just Place ChapbookCapitol LettersThe Ekphrastic ReviewThe Rival GW, and in the poetry anthology Falling Leaves published by Day Eight. She also attended the 2021 Glen Workshop as a poetry and songwriting fellow. She recently graduated summa cum laude from George Washington University with a BA in Religious Studies and minors in Journalism and Psychology. Her work is motivated by the unique power of art to ask meaningful questions and inspire authenticity.