A colorful documentary about the feminist sex researcher you may not have heard of.

Shere Hite models after emigrating to Europe.

Shere Hite, who modeled to pay for grad school and went on to become a bestselling author, is the subject of Nicole Newnham’s debut documentary The Disappearance of Shere Hite at the Sundance Film Festival. The film is awash in color as we learn about Hite’s life from her journals (read by Dakota Johnson, also an executive producer) and interviews with her friends and associates. Newnham (Crip Camp) and editor Eileen Meyer use a compelling and driving storytelling style; the only clumsy moments are the clips of Hite’s televised appearances, which show the sexist backlash to her work.

Since Hite was a model — even after the release of her research—many photographs and illustrations were available to the filmmaker. Spurred to join the National Organization for Women after posing for a misogynistic typewriter ad that the group was protesting, Hite came to be involved in conversations among members about sexuality. After perceiving the low numbers of women at the time who were comfortable expressing or exploring sexual desires and how to act on them, the former Columbia University PhD student created a survey about women’s sexuality. The culmination of five years of work, with participants contributing anonymously across the nation, was published in 1976 as the Hite Report.

Newnham’s film explores the impact of the groundbreaking book and the two related works that followed, recognizing Hite, flaws and all, as a researcher who was ahead of her time. One of her NOW compatriots comments that Hite was “brave in a way that took my breath away,” but through various TV clips, we also see Hite’s control start to fall away. The two programs where she is thrust into confrontations with angry, all-male panels and audiences (one of them hosted by Oprah, of all people) is discomfiting to the modern-day viewer.

The “disappearance” in the title refers not only to Hite’s later escape to Europe, but to her seeming erasure from history. Speaking as a feminist born after the publication of her first book, I was only vaguely familiar with the title of the Hite Report before seeing this documentary. The Disappearance of Shere Hite reminds us of Hite’s import while painting a beautifully complex portrait of this complicated woman.

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