The Female Gaze

I watched the new BFI collection The Camera Is Ours, which brings together various documentary films made by women directors before 1970, when there were very few of them working in a controlling role on productions.

Some of these are simple informational or promotional shorts. Some were made for the Ministry Of Information and its related units as part of the war effort. Some have a more political, campaigning element, and this reflects the politics of some of the women trying to get in to film production in the early 40s, who saw the medium as a way to spread socialist messages. It’s not stated explicitly whether they were aware of Soviet cinema and its use for advancing Party lines, but that was discussed around the time, when Eisenstein and Vertov‘s works were known in the West.

There are 10 films of varying lengths, and some extra features made more recently about some of the directors.

Beside The Seaside (1935) dir. Marion Grierson

One of the 3 features included that gets a modern content warning at the start: “This film includes a scene that reflects harmful racist views”. In this case it’s an appearance of a “minstrel” show entertaining holidaymakers at a seaside, with men in blackface singing songs and telling weird riddles to each other. Apart from them it’s a terribly serious voyage around the south coast with a rather solemn male narrator pointing out sites of economic importance.

Although we don’t see them, Northern seaside resorts were also available at this time.

Behind The Scenes (1938) dir. Evelyn Spice

London Zoo and its inhabitants and workers and the works they do.

A fruity-voiced male narrator tells us the historical background and the current scientific work going on, which includes laboratories with some white-coated specialists inside.

They Also Serve (1940) dir. Ruby Grierson

It’s now wartime, and the MoI needs to keep up morale.

We look at the life of an ordinary housewife in the south looking after a husband who works night shifts, feeding her family, while also doing her bit as a volunteer for the ARP. She also finds time for helping out her neighbours by tipping them off when soldier Sid has telegrammed that he’s got some leave and is arriving by train later today.

4 And 20 Fit Girls (1940) dir. Mary Field

A work for the National Fitness Council.

Another male narrator talks about the exciting new development of fitness classes in the evenings that are attracting women of all types and backgrounds.

The English Inn (1941) dir. Muriel Box

A celebration of the English Inn as the centre of national life, though it focuses on rural and suburban examples and we never go near to any East End examples. A rather academic-sounding male narrator gives us the history as well as the uplifting social commentary, and we can see a few men in uniform in the background.

Birth-Day (1945) dir. Brigid Cooper

A man in uniform goes to see his unit’s medical officer to apply for leave to be with his expectant wife. The medic gives him a long talk about the new high-quality services available and the progress being made in improving infant mortality statistics.

This also has a warning about harmful racist views – they appear in the section about Old Wives Tales that modern mums ought to ignore, one of which is about the dangers of drinking stout during pregnancy.

Homes For The People (1945) dir. Kay Mander

Now for a little bit of politics.

The male narrator gives us the historical background and brings it up to date with the lists of recent legislation to finally improve living standards.

But the big innovation is that we get 5 actual women talking for themselves about the problems they have with different kinds of bad housing around the country.

Children Of The Ruins (1947) dir. Jill Craigie

A very bleak look at the immediate post-War world, with a message of hope in the new institutions like UNESCO.

We are told about lives disrupted and homes and educations destroyed. The focus is not just on Europe, there are images of China and Japan as well. It isn’t just about the war, we get a wider view that includes the damage and dislocation caused by the preceding Depression, and the low status of teachers in western countries is also held as a problem that needs fixing.

There is another warning about racist views, which may be relating to the rather quick way in which India is mentioned only for having a problem about female education. China was presented as another victim of aggression, and the brief clip of Japanese militarism rather put it on the same level as the equivalent clip of Hitler Youth rallies. There’s no implication that these countries are in any way more inclined to warlikeness; Jill Craigie (as we see in other features) did not have that sort of politics.

The Troubled Mind (1954) dir. Margaret Thomson

The life of a student nurse who has gone into psychiatric services and is daunted by very disturbed inmates she sees around the institution. There are references to attempted suicide and self-harm, and we see manic and violent behaviour as well as the use of ECT (not shown in full) to control the patients.

Something Nice To Eat (1967) dir. Sarah Erulkar

Something completely different – for a start, we’re in colour, in a decade where people are permitted to enjoy themselves at last.

The fruity-voiced man (he appears on screen now) takes us on a journey around the world and its finest gastronomic delights and also explains a few details about the lief-enhancing joy of cookery. He warns that “great mystique has grown up around the souffle” but he’s going to disperse that by narrating a faceless pair of hands showing how its done, whilst a baroque pop soundtrack doodles away.

A Q&A session with Sarah Erulkar, recorded in 2010, is included in the extras. She explains that she only ever wanted to make docunmentaries and explore the use of film to get the world recorded. There is also a short film recorded in 2000 of Kay Mander in her later years, remembering the motivation of young left-wingers around 1940 to use film to show the world and how it could be changed.

But the biggest extra feature, bringing all this set together, is Independent Miss Craigie, a documentary-with-drama first screened in 2020. This takes us through Craigie’s life as a young woman in London in the 1930s (and remembering how dangerous it was, and how much male menace was expected to be taken for granted) and into the film industry. Being Britain’s only female director and struggling to get any projects accepted or distributed.

In amongst the footage of interviews with Craigie herself and her daughter and other survivors, the scenes of early confrontations are re-staged:

She wrote as well as directed both features and documentaries up to the end of the 60s, covering the impact of new tower blocks as well as men’s grooming. She put together an independently-financed production of Blue Scar, a story set in a Welsh mining town at the time of nationalisation. She was also involved in the campaigns for urban regeneration in Plymouth, which is where she met young Michael Foot, who became her 3rd husband.

We do get some details on how Michael wasn’t quite perfect – very much that older generation of male feminist who supported it as an abstract ideal whilst not doing anything in the way of domestic assistance. The film also covers Craigie’s revelation, in the 1990s, that she had been assaulted by Arthur Koestler back in the early 50s.

All these women did very well, even though all their works were presented with a mansplainer talking over them.

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