Betty Tells Her Story is the poignant tale of beauty, identity and a dress - and is considered a classic of documentary filmmaking.   Made in 1972, it was the first independent film of the women’s movement to explore the issues of body image, self-worth and beauty in our culture - and to explore the ways in which clothing and appearance affect a woman’s identity.  

It is the saga of Betty's search for "the perfect dress"- how she found just the right one, felt absolutely transformed, and… never got to wear it.  Then Betty tells her story again.  This time, her feelings emerge and the story is strikingly different.  The contrast between the two stories is haunting. 

Betty Tells Her Story has been in continuous active distribution since it was made - used in film studies and communication classes, psychology, sociology, anthropology, women’s studies, and many other disciplines.

Brandon is to be congratulated... this is a film about human beings - how they talk and feel, hide and reveal, and hurt.

Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune
Synopsis: 

The story Betty tells is a simple one. She needed "the perfect dress" for a very special occasion. Betty describes in amusing detail how she found just the right one, spent more than she could afford for it, modeled it for admiring friends, felt absolutely transformed and then...never got to wear it. The story and Betty are witty, engaging and delightful.

Then Betty is asked to tell her story again. This time the story is strikingly different. While the facts remain the same, Betty reveals how she really felt: her anxiety over buying the dress, her discomfort at being praised for beauty she feels she doesn't have, and her subsequent bewilderment at the way things turn out. Betty becomes withdrawn, sad and vulnerable, and her voice, body and words express the painfulness of the memory. The contrast between the two stories is haunting.

Our culture's emphasis on female "beauty" underscores the poignant saga of Betty's search for "the perfect dress". The film is as meaningful and moving today as it was when it was made.

Betty Tells Her Story was restored with a grant from NYWIFT's Women's Film Preservation Fund. The restored version was recently featured at the Barbican Centre in London.

Reviews

Betty Tells Her Story is, in my opinion, a masterpiece...It is impossible to imagine any woman over 12 not relating to the film. Its emotional impact is overwhelming...

Mary K. Chelton, School Library Journal

…a shattering verbal/non-verbal ballet of changed emphases, no longer hidden nuances, and dropped masks.                                                                                                                     

                                                                                                                       

Amos Vogel, Film Comment

Seldom in a film does the warmth and the human spirit of an individual come across as it happens here; seldom does a person reveal herself so honestly and openly.

Patricia H. Black, Film Library Quarterly

This classic study of the tyranny of the beauty ideal is perhaps more relevant today than ever before. Brandon's film tells a story that is funny, moving, and powerfully illuminating.

Jean Kilbourne, Creator, "Killing Us Softly"
Director's Commentary: 

When I made Betty Tells Her Story in 1972, it was very different from traditional non-fiction films.  Most of the documentaries I had seen were about wars, historical events, male heroes, travel, inventions and so-called “primitive” tribes.  Most were made by men.  Very few, if any, were concerned with the lives of ordinary women, or with the issues of culture, standards of beauty, clothing and identity.  I thought it was important to make films that allowed women to tell their own stories; stories that reflected their own experiences.

When Betty Tells Her Story was released, it was considered innovative - even radical - for a number of reasons.  One was its subject.  It was one of the earliest non-fiction films to give voice to an individual (not famous or glamorous) woman.   Betty simply tells her story in her own words.   There are no interviewers prodding her and no commentary interpreting her.   

The form was also controversial.  Betty is not an actress.  She tells her story twice.  There are no cuts in either of the stories.  Each time Betty tells her story, she does so in a single take.  This went against all conventions of film making.

Despite its uncommon subject matter and approach, or perhaps because of it, word of the film spread rapidly through the women’s media grapevine, and then to the independent film community.   It received national recognition a year later when Gene Siskel wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune and invited me to discuss it with him on his nationally syndicated radio program.  He liked the film so much that he programmed it at a screening in Chicago with “Drive He Said” directed by Jack Nicholson as his two favorite films of the year.

Even though there was strong demand for this film (and for Anything You Want To Be which I made the year before) commercial distributors were still reluctant to handle women’s social issue films.  So in 1971, Julia Reichert, Amalie Rothschild, Jim Klein and I created New Day Films, the nation’s first filmmaker-run cooperative dedicated to the distribution of feminist and social issues films.        

In the following years the film received a great deal of acclaim.  It was selected to appear in more than 20 festivals and it has been screened at prestigious venues including the First International Festival of Women's Films in Paris and Mumbai, La Femme & Le Film International Film Festival, Toronto, the Museum of Modern Art, the Robert Flaherty International Film Seminar and the Mary Pickford Theater at the Library of Congress. 

Following its restoration in 2010 with a grant from the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, it has enjoyed renewed popularity with screenings at Metrograph and UnionDocs in NY, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Barbican Centre in London, The Glasgow Film Theatre in Scotland, The Royal Institute for Theatre in Brussels, and colleges and universities across the country.

The film continues to receive recognition and use.  It is regularly screened in documentary courses, film study programs, women’s studies, journalism, psychology, sociology and anthropology courses.  It was the subject of a major article by Dr. Elliot G. Mishler of Harvard Medical School entitled Historians of the Self: Restorying Lives, Revising Identities published in the journal Research in Human Development, and it is included in Sheila Bernard’s book: Documentary Storytelling, Focal Press.

In 2012, The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Duke University created the New Day Collection comprised of the New Day’s founders’ films and historical materials, and digitals files of all the films in the New Day cooperative.  The films will remain in active distribution through New Day however.

Additional information

The film was shot with Ricky Leacock’s converted Auricon camera which he loaned to me. 

I was the producer, director, camerawoman and editor of Betty Tells Her Story.   Betty Murray (a school teacher) is Betty (not an actress) the subject of the documentary.