This conversation focuses on women’s stories in British documentary filmmaking, centreing on questions of visibility, participation, independence and community. Drawing on our written and practice-led research, we use three specific instances as starting points, Jill Craigie (1911 – 99), dubbed ‘Britain’s first woman director’ in her hay day in the 1940s; Joanna Davis and Mary Pat Leece at Four Corners Film and Photography Workshop, London (1979-83) and Amber’s Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (b.1948), a founding member of the Newcastle film and photography collective (1968 – present).
Craigie’s To Be A Woman (1951), an ardent call for equal pay, was inspired by the Suffragette Movement, whose wider demands for women’s equality she saw being obstructed by the political establishment in the decades after the vote was won.
We consider what forms of inter-generational feminist dialogue can be also be traced through these women’s work in documentary. How did they negotiate gendered hierarchies at different moments in time, place and production context as well as interrogating British social realism? Did they succeed in creating meaningful participation for the communities they worked/work with? How did/do they narrate their own life histories and how are they remembered? How might they connect to construct a new history of women’s documentary in Britain?
Independent Miss Craigie (Dir. Lizzie Thynne, AP: Hollie Price, 2021) is a film exploring the career and life of Jill Craigie (1911 – 99) who negotiated formidable obstacles for women in becoming a director in the 1940s. She created novel docu-dramas with non-professional actors from local communities in her films on post-war reconstruction such as The Way We Live (on town planning, 1946) and Blue Scar (on nationalization of the mines, 1949). The narrative captures Craigie’s fragmented working life covering her acclaimed films of the 1940s, her journalism, her writing, her little-known television work, and her presence as ‘media personality’ in what might be called, in that slightly euphemistic phrase, a ‘portfolio career’. It considers how her history is inflected, like so many women’s careers in the media industries and beyond, by the intersection of the personal and the professional. Using Craigie’s voice(s) extensively in our film was a way of providing a counterpoint to her specularization as a woman film-maker. The film reflects on the tension between the high visibility of Craigie (fetishized for her beautiful looks), her determination to secure the production and distribution of her work and her later marginalization in film histories.
Lizzie Thynne is a film-maker and writer on media and film. She is Professor of Film at Sussex University. She is Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded project Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer. Her work often focuses women’s life histories. Her feature documentaries include On the Border, 2012 (on her Finnish mother’s history) JMP Screenworks 4, Brighton: Symphony of A City, (Brighton Festival 2016/Symphonic Visions, Metier 2018) and Playing a Part: The Story of Claude Cahun (AHRC funded, 2005). She directed ten short videos for Sisterhood and After: An Oral History of Women’s Liberation (with the British Library), funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
Four Corners workshop’s experimental documentary Bred and Born (Joanna Davis and Mary Pat Leece, 1983) was the product of a series of group screenings and discussions exploring the theme of “Mothers and Daughters” in London’s East End. It combines footage of a women’s discussion group exploring mother-daughter relationships with interviews with four generations of women from the same working-class family. Using archival records of the film’s production process, this paper explores how it foregrounds women’s experiences of the networks investigated in Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s landmark study Family and Kinship in East London (1957). On one hand, it does so through a self-conscious deconstruction of observational modes of documentary. On the other, Bred and Born can also be productively resituated as part of an evolving tradition of feminist documentary filmmaking in Britain. Drawing on my research for the Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer project, I highlight the congruences between Four Corners’ work in this period and Craigie’s participatory film projects, underlining her feminist attention to women’s voices, domestic labour and mothers’ and daughters’ experiences of the post-war settlement.
Hollie Price is a Research Fellow on the AHRC-funded Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer project at the University of Sussex. She is an associate producer on Independent Miss Craigie (Lizzie Thynne, 2021), and has previously published on aspects of British film and culture including post-war stardom and domestic modernity, Vivien Leigh’s homes, and the British Ministry of Information’s animated films. Her first monograph Picturing home: Domestic life and modernity in 1940s British Film was published by Manchester University Press in 2021.
Finnish-born Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen trained in photography before joining Amber Film Workshop in 1973, a film collective based in the North East of England and committed to participatory engagement with working-class communities. This paper reflects on a project Konttinen developed in the early 1980s around dance schools in the North East, which played a central part in the lives of working-class girls and women, from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. Developed over several years, the project explored the generational dynamics of female-communities and the role of dance in forging and testing female identities. Working with oral histories, photographs, collage and media artefacts Konttinen co-produced a film, Keeping Time (1983), several exhibitions and a publication Step By Step (1989) through which the dreams, ambitions and resilience of working-class women were articulated in their own words and on their own terms. Drawing on my research about women’s work in the British film industry, this paper places Konttinen in a history of feminist and female-voiced documentary filmmaking in Britain, which attends to female subjectivity, female-communities and the lived experience of what it means “to be a woman” at particular moments in time.
Melanie Bell is Associate Professor of Film at the University of Leeds. She has published widely on many aspects of gender and British film including a monograph on star labour and feminism (Julie Christie, BFI, 2016), an article on women’s soundwork and the foley artist Beryl Mortimer (Screen, 2017) and the work of women editors and directors in the British non-fiction sector (Feminist Media Histories, 2018). Her latest monograph draws on oral histories and trade union records to write a feminist revisionist history of women in film. Entitled Movie Workers: The Women Who Made British Cinema it will be published by the University of Illinois Press in June 2021.