You are here

Share Share Share Share Share Share Share

Gail Dolgin

Documentary filmmaker
1945 – 2010
by Rick Goldsmith with Laurie Coyle

Gail Dolgin, an Academy-Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, passed away on October 7, 2010, in Berkeley, CA, at age of 65. She was an active citizen, a leader in the documentary community, and unabashed about her battle with cancer during the last decade of her life.

Dolgin produced and co-directed (with Vicente Franco) "Daughter from Danang" (2002), winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary and nominated for an Academy Award. After a theatrical release and international festival run the film had a national broadcast on the PBS American Experience series. "Daughter from Danang" follows the story of an Amerasian woman and her Vietnamese mother as they reunite after a 22-year separation.

"Daughter from Danang" was lauded for its emotional power and moving portrayal of a family struggling to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War. The New York Times wrote of the film, "its power comes from its soul's-eye view of how well-meaning patronizing masked a social injustice." During her acceptance speech at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, Gail shared with the world her battle with cancer and how she had found the courage to bring the film to completion.

"Daughter from Danang" went on to further acclaim on the PBS prime time series “American Experience,” where it was one of the first contemporary stories to be profiled and simulated more letters to than any previous Am Ex program. This success was followed by a second film for American Experience in 2007, "Summer of Love," a striking picture of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district during the summer of 1967.

Gail Dolgin was born April 4, 1945, to Israel and Diana Dolgin. She grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, a suburb of New York City, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in art history. Returning to New York, she studied photography and joined Newsreel, a social issue driven film collective that launched her interest and ultimately her career in film. Later, she earned a teaching certification from San Francisco State and an M.A. in Instructional Technology from the University of Oregon.

Her path towards documentary filmmaking is a winding intersect of photography, storytelling, social activism, and teaching. She was dedicated to documentary narrative as a way to impact the world as both an artist and an activist.

Gail was a leader in the documentary film community, in the Bay Area and nationally. Her colleagues benefited from her incisive and perceptive critiques of their works-in-progress and her empathic skills as a mediator. She served as a mentor and advisor to novice and experienced filmmakers alike. For several years, she organized and hosted a popular monthly gathering of "The Film Group" – friends and colleagues from the San Francisco Bay Area's documentary film community, who viewed recently-completed documentary films from around the world and then got on the phone with the film’s director for a spirited discourse about the film, its issues, and its making.

Gail Dolgin balanced her activism in the cause of social justice with an equally fervent commitment to the life of the spirit and was active in a close and cohesive spiritual community.

Rick Goldsmith and Laurie Coyle are documentary filmmakers who were long-time friends and colleagues of Gail Dolgin.


Despite her frequent protestations of being "just a poor independent filmmaker" on a Board that was charged with raising funds and providing institutional governance, Gail tirelessly sought to make the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival a unique space for exploring and challenging notions of Jewish identity through film. In her volunteer capacity as a Board member and also an incisive member of our screening committees, she proved time and again that the cultural expression of Jewish peoplehood was a passionate part of her own identity; it was a formative part of her interest in telling stories that help illuminate the human condition. This lifelong interest was evident in her own filmmaking, of course, but was also an essential characteristic of her dedication to the Festival: she had a profound faith that not only the uplifting efforts of tikkun olam but also the messy and difficult work of cross-cultural understanding were two parts of the same progressive enterprise – and she worked passionately to see that reflected in the festival's programming and in the community it helps create. For her, the SFJFF was not a finite event, but an ever-becoming sacred space.
-Peter Stein, Executive Director, SF Jewish Film Festival

Beneath the cool intellect and measured demeanor, was the fervent spirit of a woman motivated by a desire to examine America’s history through the documentary. Gail believed in the power of television to enlighten and educate American audiences about our character as a nation. Her latest project, which remains unfinished, was about the foot soldiers of the African American civil rights movement who remain largely unknown and unsung heroes. It was the latest example of how Gail applied her humanistic values and belief in social justice to her work.

–Richard Saiz, Beyond the Box blog, October 13, 2010

Elsewhere on the web

Gail Dolgin, 2002
Full image

Documentary filmmaker Gail Dolgin (1945 – 2010) at a preview of Daughter from Danang in 2002.

Photo by Ron Lewis.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Gail Dolgin, 1945 - 2010." (Viewed on November 17, 2018) <>.

Donate in Memoriam

Make a donation in memory of Gail Dolgin.

donate now

The JWA Podcast

listen now

Sign Up for JWA eNews


Discover Education Programs

Join our growing community of educators.

view programs