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Women Non-Fiction Filmmakers 1930-1960

How women made their mark in a male-dominated profession

Main image of Women Non-Fiction Filmmakers 1930-1960

Although women have been involved in the production of films since the early days of cinema, they are frequently neglected in film histories. While it may be true that they have generally worked behind the scenes in less glamorous roles, this does not account for the fact that many women directed, produced, edited and wrote scripts in the early 1900s and 1910s. Perhaps this omission has more to do with the fact that most histories of film centre on the predominantly male contribution to feature-filmmaking. While this imbalance has been partially addressed with re-evaluations of women feature directors, little attention has been paid to women who made non-fiction films. Most people will have heard of the documentarist John Grierson but how well known are his sisters, the directors Marion and Ruby Grierson?

Women involved in non-fiction filmmaking in the cinema's early days were predominantly wealthy women who filmed their travels abroad, like Rosita Forbes in the late 1910s and Stella Court-Treatt in the 1920s. Notable exceptions included Mrs D.H. Scott, a scientific filmmaker from the 1900s, Mrs Aubrey le Blond, a documenter of winter sports in the same period and Jessica Borthwick, who filmed the Balkan War in 1913.

During the peak years of the newsreels in the 1920s and 1930s there were no female camera or sound operators; it would seem that the daredevil lifestyle of the newsreel cameraman was not open to the 'gentler sex'. This seems extraordinary when many newsreel stories featured intrepid women flyers breaking aviation records all around the world. Consequently, most women in the newsreels worked in post-production or administration and there was the occasional female commentator. However, one woman, Helen Wiggins, became Chief Film Editor of several newsreel companies before setting up her own production company in the late 1940s.

The first woman to make any real impact in non-fiction filmmaking in the 1920s and 1930s was Mary Field, a prolific producer and director of scientific and educational films. It was in this sector that Margaret Thomson began her long career in filmmaking, making nature films for Gaumont-British Instructional. The British documentary movement of the 1930s and 1940s also gave many women technicians their start in directing, including the Grierson sisters, Evelyn Spice, Budge Cooper and Kay Mander.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, personnel shortages in several documentary units led to the employment of more women. This is not to say that a wave of women took over filmmaking in the 1940s. Rather, the non-fiction sector allowed more women to become directors and producers as opposed to the more traditional roles of laboratory work, continuity, wardrobe and make-up in feature-filmmaking.

Moreover, these women were not necessarily just making films about women's issues and domestic topics; they covered areas as wide-ranging as gardening, farming, firefighting, medicine, industrial tool use and civil defence procedures. The wartime propaganda campaign also provided work for the animator Joy Batchelor, who established a production company with her husband John Halas in 1940. Halas & Batchelor produced many cartoons for the government during and after the war, and in the 1950s made Britain's first full-length animated entertainment film, Animal Farm (1954), adapted from George Orwell's novel.

While several women got their break in filmmaking via the documentary movement or wartime propaganda films, a significant exception is Jill Craigie, who made her first film in 1944. She went on to direct films using a combination of dramatic and documentary styles and is included here as she made socially aware films using 'ordinary people' and amateur actors rather than professionals.

Although women continued to find work making industrial, corporate and advertising films throughout the 1950s, there were less opportunities for women in the non-fiction sector. The heyday of the documentary movement was over, due to postwar changes in both production and exhibition infrastructures and increasing competition from television. Attitudes to women in the workplace had also altered since the war and many women left filmmaking careers to bring up families. Those women who wanted a career in film could not make the transition into feature directing, as many of their fellow male documentarists had done, and were told by studio heads that they were incapable of managing a budget or controlling predominantly male crews. With a few exceptions, women simply left the industry altogether.

Sarah Easen

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Thumbnail image of Craigie, Jill (1911-1999)Craigie, Jill (1911-1999)


Thumbnail image of Erulkar, Sarah (1923-)Erulkar, Sarah (1923-)

Director, Writer, Editor

Thumbnail image of Field, Mary (1896-1968)Field, Mary (1896-1968)

Producer, Director, Consultant

Thumbnail image of Grierson, Marion (1907-1998)Grierson, Marion (1907-1998)

Director, Producer

Thumbnail image of Grierson, Ruby (1904-1940)Grierson, Ruby (1904-1940)


Thumbnail image of Mander, Kay (1915-)Mander, Kay (1915-)

Director, Producer, Editor, Writer

Thumbnail image of Spice, Evelyn (1904-1990)Spice, Evelyn (1904-1990)

Director, Producer

Thumbnail image of Thomson, Margaret (1910-2005)Thomson, Margaret (1910-2005)