NEWS

“THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE” | Interview with the director

Starring Dakota Johnson, Shere Hite and Michael Conrad
Directed by Nicole Newnham

Many people are familiar with the Kinsey Report on sexual behavior, which rocked the establishment in the early fifties, but far fewer know about 1976’s Hite Report, which effectively described the frequency and variability of female orgasm. The report’s author, feminist researcher Shere Hite, was alternately celebrated and vilified for her writing, with media outlets often outwardly hostile to her research. But she pressed on, with other reports on male sexuality and what she viewed as a repressive societal structure soon to follow.

But after several gotcha media moments, Hite one day simply walked out of her Manhattan apartment and never returned. That is only one intriguing mystery of the researcher’s life as told in the new documentary “The Disappearance of Shere Hite.”

“When I started diving into the story and looked at the footage of how she was treated in the media…it seemed to be representative of a phenomenon that often happens when an oppressed group tries to make progress,” said Nicole Newnham (“Crip Camp”), director of the new documentary. “In a very, very short time relatively speaking, Roe v. Wade was passed, and there was this kind of opening in the early-seventies where people really thought the culture could be completely changed to be more equitable. And that’s kind of where our story starts.”

Not everyone was anxious to hear about the female orgasm, however. The film shows Hite vilified and mocked, typically by men, as well as one notorious interview where she is ambushed by someone she didn’t wish to speak to, causing Hite to walk off the set. She kept her chin up and moved forward for as long as she could, until that day she up and left New York entirely.

“This kind of backlash, we’ve been building towards the point where we are now with Roe being overturned and restrictive abortion laws, which are causing enormous harm to women,” said Newnham. “So it’s a really urgent time for a story like this. … And my hope is that…people can be fired up to get back to the kind of creative organizing and movement-building which included so many wonderful creative women and men at that time.”

Newnham’s Oscar-nominated “Crip Camp” (co-directed by James Lebrecht) was produced under the aegis of the Obamas’s Higher Ground production company, though the former first couple were not involved personally on “Disappearance,” she shared. However, many of the collaborators she met on that earlier film were present for the new documentary.

In addition to contemporary interviews with people who knew Hite personally, Newnham’s team included researchers from NBC News who were able to comb the archives for footage of Hite to include in the film. (Hite often wouldn’t go on talk shows unless promised a tape for her personal files.) There was also Hite’s personal archives, bequeathed to Harvard, which included her diaries and many photos of Hite—some of them rather racy given her time modeling in rather few items of clothing.

“The other amazing thing in terms of the archives is we started contacting the people that she thanked in her books,” said Newnham. “We found a lot of them were boyfriends, people she’d had relationships with who had also helped her and her work—who were just these wonderful, thoughtful people. And they all had archives from their time with her. So then suddenly we had access to hundreds more photographs.

“She cared so much about the construction of her image and she loved film and photography so much so she was always setting up these incredible photographs of herself at every different stage of her life.”

While Hite did indeed simply walk away from her New York life one day, the film explores what became of her thereafter. Newnham said that it was her editor, Eileen Meyer, who suggested the title “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” both as a hook as well as to get her subject’s name prominently in the title—versus the word “sex” itself.

“She is such a huge character, and it didn’t feel right to present the film as if it was not about her,” Newnham said. “It really is her film. Even though I’ve spent years now reading her words and looking at her and studying her and talking to people about her, I still think she’s quite a mysterious character.

“She’s kind of a mirror for looking at ourselves and how we let this happen—and how it happens.”

Newnham said she and her crew were in the midst of shooting interviews for “Disappearance” when the Dobbs decision leak happened last summer, which overturned Roe v. Wade and sent the issue of abortion rights back to the states—many of which have subsequently passed severe restrictions or even outright bans. Newnham had been filming an interview with feminist scholar Phyllis Chesler in New York, and the very next day Newnham and others were on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington to protest.

“Phyllis Chesler said, ‘We thought you could make this kind of change in seven years, because that’s how long it took us to get Roe, [but] this is more like a 200-year struggle,’” Newnham related. “I know that it’s depressing and shocking and sad, but…you want to take the long view, you want to see the progress we have made and still retain a belief that cultural change is possible.

“And Shere Hite did make a cultural change. She really did change people’s minds about how women orgasm. Towards the end of her life she said, ‘I’ve made that change and that was great,’ [but] she was very afraid of what was coming.”

Newnham praises her team on the film. Having co-directed “Crip Camp” to an Oscar nomination, she is keenly aware of the importance of collaboration to not only get people motivated to activism, but also to share a good story in documentary form.

“The Dobbs decision [is] like an extra layer of intensity [adding] to our urgency and our feeling of getting the story out now,” she said. “There was no stone left unturned.”

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” is now available in select theaters

Director Nicole Newnham