AFF Review: The Disappearance of Shere Hite

New documentary is a timely reminder of the sexologist's work

How does history fall through the cracks? How does it repeat itself? The Disappearance of Shere Hite, a documentary about the sexologist and author of The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, doesn’t have all the answers to these questions, but it is a riveting, disheartening, and all too familiar case study.

The film offers a tender and ruminative journey through Hite’s work, life, and what happened to her in the wake of backlash to her work. The Disappearance of Shere Hite is especially poignant in a post Roe v. Wade world hellbent on keeping progress at bay. The result is both a look at the advances made since Hite published her groundbreaking findings in 1976 and a reflective look at where we’re headed if we continue to forget our past.

It’s fitting that the opening credit sequence begins solemnly, with people propping up photographs of Hite, preparing for a requiem in her memory (the writer passed in 2020) according to an invitation we see briefly. The opening imbues the film with a respect and warmth for the researcher and writer, underscoring the loss of her as well as her knowledge. As the documentary rolls on, we hear passages from her personal writings read by Dakota Johnson, accompanied by warm and grainy archival footage and talking head interviews where we learn about Hite’s life and work from those who knew her best.

Johnson’s narration as Hite is engaging and well done, and the interviews with Hite’s friends, colleagues, and former partners create a multidimensional portrait of the writer. Director Nicole Newnham, best known for 2020’s Crip Camp does a great job intertwining the two, sometimes having a passage Hite wrote about a certain person play over footage of them now. In this way, although there are no contemporary interviews with Hite in the film, her voice is present throughout.

Similarly, there is narration of the answers by anonymous women and men surveyed by Hite. Their voices carry over archival footage and photographs of the written responses, talking through their emotional and physical lives, creating an intimacy that is deeply moving.

(One thing left unexamined were the limits of Hite’s work – who falls through the cracks when a research focus is so binary? The film doesn’t address this, making for a curious blindspot.)

In addition to the rise of Hite’s prominence as a sexologist and writer, the film takes a look at the painful backlash and her fall into relative obscurity. There are several instances in which Hite confronts her most ardent critics, often men, who questioned her methodology and motives after her books were published. While Hite’s difficulties with taking even constructive criticism were well known, it seems that the majority of the critiques Hite faced were thinly veiled misogyny. In one especially harrowing sequence, she is invited onto The Oprah Winfrey Show to address an all-male audience and their petulant complaints. The looks of hate, disdain, and disgust on their faces as they lob their critiques and insecurities at Hite are burned onto my brain.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite is an illuminating, haunting, and ruminative documentary worth watching, if not for crystalizing the history of Hite’s work on film, then for a look at how much and how little things have changed for women, even with its blindspot. Towards the end of the film, a few of Hite’s contemporaries lament the loss of her familiarity among younger feminists, underscoring the importance of remembering history to avoid repeating it. This film will give audiences a chance to learn and remember Hite.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite

Austin Film Festival runs Oct. 26-Nov. 3. Badges available now at austinfilmfestival.com.
Find more news, reviews, and interviews at Austinchronicle.com/AFF.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Austin Film Festival, AFF 2023, Austin Film Festival 2023, AFF, The Disappearance of Shere Hite, Dakota Johnson, Nicole Newnham

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