Report: British Women Documentary Filmmakers, 1930 – 1955 Symposium, 5 April 2019, London School of Economics (LSE)

Llewella Chapman, University of East Anglia

7 May 2019


I attended this event with great anticipation, and I was most definitely not disappointed. The symposium was organised by Sadie Wearing (London School of Economics), who is part of the team working on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project ‘Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer’, alongside Yvonne Tasker (University of Leeds), Lizzie Thynne (University of Sussex) and Adele Tulli (University of Sussex).

The three-year project, which began in October 2018, is researching the documentary filmmaker Jill Craigie as an entry point to ‘interrogate the historical frameworks and the canon of the British Documentary Film Movement which have undervalued women’s contribution to the genre.’ As part of this, the project makes use of primary sources held by archives, predominantly Craigie’s papers held by the Women’s Library at the LSE, as well as holdings available in the British Film Institute (BFI), the British Entertainment History Project (BEHP, formally BECTU), The Arts Institute (Plymouth), The Forum (Norwich) and the Stanley Spencer Gallery. The main aim of the project is to question ‘what we can learn from a pioneering woman’s career about the inequalities which persist in the creative industries today.’ You can visit here for more information.

Most pleasing on attending the symposium was discovering that not only were there a range of papers and methodological approaches offered toward the researching of women documentary filmmakers during this period, but most importantly, the research was being conducted by a range of scholars and archivists at different levels, from PhD students to professors. All of the papers were of a consistently high quality. Alongside this, it quickly became evident that everyone attending the symposium was fully engaged with one another’s scholarship, and the symposium provided a very supportive environment in which to provide further platforms for future collaboration and research.

Fiona Kelly, Film Curator at the Imperial War Museums (IWM), began the day by introducing films by and about women during World War II held by the archive, including documentaries, informational and instructional films made by Joy Batchelor, Louise Birt, Jill Craigie, Mary Field, Ruby Grierson, Kay Mander and Margaret Thomson. In her paper, Kelly considered three main strands: firstly, the role of women behind the camera; secondly, how women were represented on screen; finally, the target audience, where Kelly noted that before female conscription, film shorts were aimed at women in their ‘traditional’ roles and domestic issues, however as the war progressed, the documentaries and dramas adapted to inform women about the different types of work and war service available to them. Kelly informed the audience of the films held by the IWM, and two Ruby Grierson films are available to view on its website: Choose Cheese (1940) and They Also Serve (1942). Another film shown was Dustbin Parade (1940), an animation short by John Halas and Joy Batchelor for the Ministry of Information (MoI):

Dustbin Parade (Halas and Batchelor, 1942)

Following Kelly’s excellent introduction, the first panel of the day continued with Toby Haggith (IWM) explaining that the majority of documentary and instructional films made by women were often concerned with ‘traditional’ issues such as welfare, health, children and the domestic sphere. Haggith went on to focus his paper on the women filmmakers’ contribution to debates on slum clearance and town planning, including Field’s Development of the English Town (1943), Mander’s New Builders (1944) and Homes for the People (1945), Budge Cooper’s Children of the City (1945), and Craigie’s The Way We Live (1946).

This was followed by Charlotte Hallahan’s (University of East Anglia) compelling research conducted into Rosie Newman, a British socialite and amateur filmmaker, and provided an insight into how Newman recorded daily civilian and military life during World War II. The focus of Hallahan’s paper was on Newman’s colour film Britain at War (1946):

Excerpt from Britain at War (Rosie Newman, 1946), courtesy of IWM

Hallahan argued that the theory of the flâneur (Walter Benjamin, developed by Lauren Elkin) can be adopted and used to analyse Newman’s film in relation to her ability to traverse the landscape of a blitzed-London at will, and personal freedom with which to document the events. It became clear during Hallahan’s excellent paper that Newman’s ability to achieve this was in part due to her socio-economic class, where Newman had a ‘little black book’ of people with which to acquire colour film stock, etc.

The final paper in this panel was delivered by Hollie Price (Queen Mary, University of London), who drew upon her extensive and fascinating archival research in to the MoI’s Film Division and its work in film distribution to present on the MoI’s non-theatrical film scheme, launched in 1940, where a fleet of mobile film units were used to screen films for free in a variety of locations including village halls, social clubs, libraries and factory canteens. Price also discussed the informal collaborations between the MoI and the Women’s Voluntary Service and the Women’s Institute. Price is working as a post-doctoral researcher on the AHRC-funded MoI Digital project, which you can read more about here.

After lunch, the second panel began with Sarah Easen (independent film historian) discussing how film historians often conflate John Grierson’s British Documentary Film Movement with documentary filmmakers generally, leading to the marginalisation of those operating outside the movement. Therefore, Easen sought to address this in her engrossing paper by focussing on the work of Mander and Thomson, including showing Thomson’s informational film Making of a Compost Heap (1941):

Making of a Compost Heap (Margaret Thomson, 1941), courtesy of BFI

Easen explained that while both Mander and Thomson achieved success in directing documentary films, neither were able to break into directing fictional feature films, with Mander returning to continuity work after being told by Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios that a woman ‘couldn’t control a male crew,’ and Thomson retiring from filmmaking in 1977 after setting up a production company in the 1950s with her husband Bill Ash. Easen provides further information on Mander’s and Thomson’s careers here and here.

Next, Helen Hughes (University of Surrey) presented on her research completed to date on ‘tracking down’ Diana Pine, a member of the Crown Film Unit between 1943 – 1951, who worked on the science films Faster than Sound (1949) and Atoms at Work (1952). Explaining that Pine was another women filmmaker whose work has been ‘hidden from view’ (in part due to Pine having to sign the Official Secrets Act), Hughes explained that Pine is an important inclusion in the work being conducted into British women documentary filmmakers due to her directing of science-based films as opposed to ‘traditional’ women-based subjects. Hughes has published her research on Pine to date in her research note ‘The story of Atoms at Work’ in Screen (Vol. 60, Issue: 1, Spring 2019, pp. 172-180).

Charles Drazin (Queen Mary, University of London) completed the panel by providing further insight into Craigie’s work through discussing his interview with Craigie as part of his research for his book The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (revised edition, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007). Drazin provided delegates with ‘impressions’ he obtained of Craigie from his interview, and specifically focussed on her directing of Out of Chaos (1944) and The Way We Live. Drazin also provided the context behind Craigie’s professional relationship with Filippo Del Giudice. You can listen to one of Craigie’s interviews published on the BEHP website here.

In the final panel of the day, Ros Cranston (BFI) started by examining the career of Marion Grierson in order to question modify the story of the ‘documentary boys’ in British film history, explaining that this was in part because of academic scholarship overlooking Marion’s work, and can also be attributed to the lack of credits at the time, leading to later mistakes through mis-crediting or omitting Marion in contemporary film reviews: a specific example being The Heart of an Empire (1935). Focussing on Beside the Seaside (1935), Cranston analysed this film in terms of its wittiness, lyricism and inventiveness, and explained that Marion believed: “There was of course prejudice against women in practically every activity,” in relation to the difference it made being a woman making a documentary, neatly linking back to Easen’s paper on Mander and Thomson in the previous panel.

Gillian Murphy (Curator, LSE Women’s Library) followed by building on from Drazin’s paper through an excellent analysis of Craigie and the rich resource of papers available which are held by the LSE Women’s Library. Murphy’s paper offered an illuminating insight into Craigie’s feminist politics, and her inspiration behind wanting make a film about the suffragette movement based on her reading of The Suffragette Movement (Sylvia Pankhurst, 1931):

Before reading the book it had not occurred to me to question the situation between the sexes, least of all had I thought that it might be changed, though it was evident that men on he whole lived a far more agreeable and interesting life. (Jill Craigie, quoted by Gillian Murphy)

In the event, the film sadly remained unrealised, in part due to not being able to satisfy the needs of those involved in the movement. Following this, Murphy analysed the making of To Be A Woman (1952), and how Craigie was commissioned to make the film by women’s organisations actively campaigning in achieving equal pay. A crowd-funding campaign was launched by the Equal Pay Campaign Committee (EPCC) to provide the £5,000 necessary for Craigie to make the film was eventually successful, the realised film did not return the investment.

To Be A Woman (Jill Craigie, 1952)

Tashi Petter (Queen Mary, University of London) offered a riveting paper on the work of Lotte Reiniger, and explained that while Reiniger is credited for the silhouette animation technique and as the director of the earliest-surviving animated feature-length film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed (1926), therefore holding an important position in the history of animation, Reiniger’s work in the area of ‘useful’ cinema has received less attention, something which Petter aims to address in her research.

Tashi Petter on ‘Sponsored Silhouettes: the fairy tale information films of Lotte Reiniger in Britain’, courtesy of Lizzie Thynne

Making extensive use of archive sources, Petter explored questions of gender and nationality, and focussed on the commissioning of Reiniger’s work produced for the General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit and Crown Film Unit. Petter explained that Reiniger’s work was heavily influenced by folklore narratives and fairy tales, leading to a ‘highly decorative, pretty and “feminine” aesthetic’. In her paper, Petter argued that these films demonstrate how Reiniger’s silhouettes are ‘inherently connected to her identity as a German émegré, and for her recognition in the production of ‘useful’ cinema, and analysed The Tocher (1938) as part of this:

The Tocher (Lotte Reiniger, 1938), courtesy of Thomas Sheppard

Finally, Melanie Williams (University of East Anglia) provided a very welcome introduction to amateur women filmmakers in the interwar and post-war period, particularly on non-fiction films, a term which encompasses different modes, including documentary, actuality, home movies and travelogues, building upon Hallahan’s analysis of Newman’s amateur filmmaking practices. Williams’ offered a close analysis of the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Stuart and Laurie Day who were based in Stoke on Trent, and together produced non-fiction films between the 1930s and 1960s, where their prize-winning films form part of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC) film collection held by the East Anglian Film Archive. Williams’ paper investigated how amateur filmmaking tended to be much more collaborative, which were strongly embedded within marital and familial leisure-cultures, as exemplified by the Day’s film, 1938 – The Last Year of Peace (1948), compiled from fragments of film shot before the outbreak of WWII, which only received ‘highly commended’ in the IAC Awards much to Laurie Day’s displeasure. As part of this analysis, Williams also pointed out the Day’s somewhat amusing, apparently subconscious, almost Freudian obsession with fruit throughout the film, which was used by the Day’s to reflect the changing of the seasons in the film.  Williams’ explained that this example highlights that this type of amateur film can offer reflection and commentary on social change and offers ‘a richly suggestive point of comparison for the contemporaneous work of professional female documentarists.’

Melanie Williams on ‘Women working in amateur non-fiction film: family, history, home, abroad’, courtesy of Lizzie Thynne

Following the final panel, the project team working on ‘Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer’ explained their planned outputs for the project, namely a book-length study co-authored by Tasker and Wearing, and a experimental documentary biopic about Craigie, produced by Thynne and Tulli. Delegates were then offered a treat, where the team introduced us to an 8-minute trailer for the documentary on Craigie.

In the plenary-round table to finish off the day, Isabel Seguí (University of St Andrews) introduced delegates to her website which Seguí designed based on a Scottish University University Research Collections Associate Scheme Grant, where she researched the project ‘The Grierson Sisters at the Grierson Collection’ (University of Stirling, 2018). This website will prove to be an invaluable teaching and research resource for those working in the area of documentary filmmaking.

Isabella Seguí, courtesy of Lizzie Thynne

Pat Holland (University of Bournemouth) and Sue Harper (University of Portsmouth) then offered their individual summaries on the variety of papers presented throughout the day, and their thoughts on going forward to research the history of women documentary filmmakers. Harper offered the following points for further thought beyond the symposium:

  1. Agency and autonomy. To what extent did companies inhibit or encourage female creativity, and why?
  2. Kinship networks. There are obviously familial or marriage connections to take into account, but we also need to ask ourselves whether, and when, there were “old girls’ networks”
  3. Do female documentarists operate as boundary walkers, policing the ground between the old and the new? Do they function best from the margins?
  4. We need to think about discourse. What cultural resources do female documentarists deploy, and how does their intellectual capital differ from that of male workers in the field?

Final round table: Isabel Suigí, Pat Holland and Sue Harper, courtesy of Lizzie Thynne

This event was free to attend, thanks to the sponsorship provided by the AHRC, and provided an abundance of the riches (or should that be cheese and fruit?) to enjoy from the research conducted by those presenting papers on women documentary filmmakers. Watch out John: Diana, Joy, Kay, Lisa, Lotte, Margaret, Marion, Mary, Rosie and Ruby are coming, and their voices are now finally being heard.


Dr Llewella Chapman is a film historian and an Associate Tutor at the University of East Anglia. Her research interests include British cinema, gender, heritage and costume design.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Archives