Making films is not a woman’s job. Film histories tell us this, awards ceremonies tell us this, retrospectives at your local indie cinema tell you this. Statistics – past, present, ongoing – tell us this.
Except it is, of course, a woman’s job. Just ask Jenny Brown, or Sarah Erulkar or Budge Cooper. Female filmmakers have always found a way to make work, officially or unofficially, around the many social and institutional barriers that have faced (and still face) women in this stubbornly male-skewed industry.
A by-product of this struggle, of the fight to be seen and heard, is often a remarkable life. When we try to turn the camera around, we catch tantalising glimpses of blazes trailed. The life and career of a female filmmaker may be jagged, half-remembered, rough-edged, but it is more often than not, a compelling story.
Take Jenny Brown. Born in Glasgow in 1902, Jenny was inspired by an amateur film about Loch Lomond to buy her first camera. Entirely self-taught, the young documentarian became captivated by Shetland, and A Crofter’s Life was the first of many films she made on the island in the 1930s. These anthropological studies are tender and beautifully observed. She is passionate about preserving tradition but honest too about the harsh reality of this labour. She does not romanticise the weavers she documents – an intertitle in A Crofter’s Life states starkly, that knitting is one of the few ways these women can make money. She captures harshness along with beauty. On the island she met and married a farmer, Johnny Gilbertson, had children, began to work as a teacher and apparently stopped making films.
In 1967, the filmmaking urge re-awoke in the now widowed and retired Jenny. After decades of silence she picked up the camera again and, in her 70s, travelled to the Arctic Circle to make a series of compelling films about indigenous ways of life for Canadian TV. This is how I first encountered Jenny, an old Scottish woman, wrapped in a pink parker and riding a snowplough through a snowy wilderness. Alone, triumphant, joyful - a free-spirited one woman show.
Bridget “Budge” Cooper began making films in the 1930s, part of a cohort of women who got their break during a boom in British doc making. Her peers included Marion and Ruby Grierson (sisters of John, remarkable filmmakers in their own right) and inimitable badass Kay Mander, who turned to editing when sexism stalled her directing career and ended up as Truffaut’s right-hand woman. War-time worker shortages allowed women like Budge to move from uncredited “continuity girl” to sole director, and to cover subjects beyond “women’s issues”. Many of these films fit ostensibly into the institutional mould, but a distinctly feminist pulse beats beneath the austere surface. See how in Children of the City Budge centres those accomplished career women, how she highlights the professional camaraderie between a female psychologist and social worker, how she lingers on a compassionate exchange with a concerned mother.
After the war, the men returned, and many of those female filmmakers were pushed back again into their less prestigious roles, struggled to transition to features or left the industry to marry. Budge married fellow filmmaker Donald Alexander and managed to keep working until the 1960s, amassing dozens of credits and a reputation for resourcefulness, pragmatism and blunt-speaking.
Then there’s Sarah Erulkar. An Indian Jewish woman, who joined the British film industry in 1947 just when the opportunities were beginning to narrow again. At a time when most women’s ambitions were shut down by marriage, or sexism, Erulkar forged a long, successful career. When she married Peter de Normanville, another filmmaker, more junior than her and earning half her salary, Erulkar was sacked and told by her boss that her new role was to “put out Peter’s slippers”. She ignored this advice and continued as a freelancer, forging a career that spanned 40 years and over 80 films.
Erulkar’s rebellious spirit permeates her work. Male and Female is delightful, mischievous, playful. She lets the teens talk, but edits smartly and gives us space to enjoy the contradictions. “I think looking after children is more of a woman’s job” states one boy; “a woman is less of a woman if she knows about machines” insists another. All the while stands Erulkar, a woman of colour with a camera in her hand, the operator(ess) of the empathy machine, a sly sideways smile on her face.
I would love to show you Grace Williamson too. I would love to point her out in the crowd of gleeful, boisterous women captured in Glasgow Soroptimists. Or to say, well of course, we can’t see her, she’s behind the lens, but she was a film lover, an ambitious artist, an eager hobbyist. She drove a tram and used a travel pass. I can’t, because Grace was an amateur filmmaker, and there’s very little in the official records to tell us who she was. But when you see what she captured, you’ll be glad that she did it. You’ll be glad that Grace decided, one day, yes, perhaps making films really is a woman’s job.
Rachel Pronger is Film Programme Coordinator at Tyneside Cinema. As co-founder of Invisible Women, a collective which champions female authored film from the archives, Rachel has presented exhibitions at Eye Filmmuseum Amsterdam, Edinburgh Art Festival, Flatpack, Brick Box Bradford and across Scotland (as part of the Assunta Spina: Silent Divas tour). She is also a Trustee for Alchemy Film & Arts in the Scottish Borders.