[DOC NYC 2023] THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE -- A Straightforward Chronicle of an Unappreciated Figure in History
Review by Sean Boelman
The Disappearance of Shere Hite debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim, and is now receiving a prime awards season release. While the documentary is worth watching for the strength of its material alone, the standard filmmaking approach is not quite as engaging as one would hope.
The movie tells the story of famed sex researcher Shere Hite, whose (in)famous book The Hite Report reinvigorated the conversation around female sexuality and pleasure. Although the title refers to the underrecognized nature of Hite’s work, the film really spends a lot of time talking about the impact she had.
Like its subject, The Disappearance of Shere Hite is largely unafraid to pull any punches when it comes to its themes. In addition to discussing sexuality in an incredibly frank way, the documentary offers a blunt (yet entirely essential) skewering of the patriarchal system that threatened to censor the work of this seminal figure.
One of the biggest issues with the documentary is that it is simply too long. Although the story being told is undeniably important, at nearly two hours in length, there’s also not much reason that it needed to be as long as this. The movie goes off on a few tangents that don’t add much to the story.
If the film does one thing well, it’s that it gives the viewer an intense admiration for its subject. However, what the movie fails to do is effectively engage with the controversy she stirred up. Although the intent seems to be to disprove the caricature many critics created of Hite, the more effective way to do so would have been to humanize the character, rather than creating a myth of her in the opposite direction.
Director Nicole Newnham’s (Crip Camp) use of archive footage in the film is very straightforward and conventional. In addition to these materials, Newnham conducts a number of talking head interviews with modern-day sexologists — who, as expected, shower effusive praise on the subject — adding context to the importance of Hite’s story.
The casting of Dakota Johnson as the narrator — speaking the words of Hite — is an inspired choice, especially considering that her role in the Fifty Shades trilogy essentially cemented her status as the modern embodiment of female sexuality. However, while she is a great, audacious choice to be the narrator, the way in which the narration is used is as conventional as the rest of the movie.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite is the type of documentary whose success is carried on the merit of its subject more so than its storytelling being anything special. There’s no denying that it’s well-made, but it does feel a bit too conventional to have such an unconventional figure at its center.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.