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Women and Film

Women on both sides of the camera

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To look separately at the role of women in the fields of film, video and television in Britain is to recognise that the experiences of women in these areas are somehow different to those of men. The work by women in moving image production both reflects and informs the position of women within British society since the 1920s.

In the silent period, Mary Field and sisters Marion and Ruby Grierson took advantage of the camaraderie and pioneering spirit of the time by joining the British documentary movement, where they made opportunities for themselves and other women to enter the system of film production. Their influence and impact on the movement was significant: Field is noted for her work on the Secrets of Nature series (1922-33) and for her inauguration, in 1944, of the children's entertainment division of British Instructional Films.

During the Second World War, women were among many filmmakers employed to make films for the Ministry of Information. Muriel Box, once a continuity girl, began directing short documentaries. In the postwar period, there were great changes for women in society; women demanded more autonomy and the opportunity to fulfil their potential. In contrast, the film industry, unions and work conditions retained a rigid structure, and many women directors were rejected or moved to less influential roles.

By the 1950s, women already played a key role as audience members and consumers of film culture. Understanding female audiences became an important factor in the success or failure of a film. The melodrama genre is designed to appeal to a specifically female audience because of its emotional and sentimental content, and its depiction of femininity. Although great consumers of the film, few women directed during this period, although one notable exception is Wendy Toye.

The British new wave saw a new depiction of women and sexuality, in films like Poor Cow (d. Ken Loach, 1967) and A Taste of Honey (d. Tony Richardson, 1961), which departed from the romantic vision of melodrama. Female characters were seen to break moral codes and defy expectations of how they should behave. But in the hands of male directors, the representation of women in these films tells us more about the position of men and their feelings about women than about the way women feel about themselves.

It was not until the early 1970s that feminism and women's consciousness began to influence the production, exhibition and distribution of film and television, as well as education and the emerging film theory. In 1972, the Edinburgh Film Festival included a women's section for the first time. Women began to engage in debates about their position in society and the ways women were represented in film, television and advertising. Using film and television as a communication tool to meet and educate women, groups like the London Women's Film Group began working within communities in regional locations.

The arrival in 1982 of Channel 4, with its remit to cater for 'minority audiences', brought some hope to women film and video directors. Although there was no specific remit to support women's work, a number of documentary series by women were commissioned, including the weekly current affairs programmes 20/20 Vision and Broadside, and the magazine show Watch the Woman. The ACTT Workshop Declaration of 1984 offered further opportunities for groups of women filmmakers to break through the barriers that had previously prevented them entering the industry, and became the basis for Channel 4 commisions.

The 1980s brought increased awareness of discrimination against women technicians and pressure on institutions such as the British Film Institute to support women's work. Through the BFI's education department and production fund there was some temporary support for British feminist films and funding for feminist distributors.

During the 1990s, shifts in politics and a transformation of production and exhibition technologies allowed greater accessibility to the media, but the new market economy and a backlash against feminism contributed to a move away from overtly feminist practice.

Today, despite the successes of Sally Potter, Antonia Bird and Lynne Ramsay, there are still relatively few women directing, particularly in feature films; they are more commonly found in production roles. In the areas of documentary and experimental film, however, women have directed a substantial body of work. This suggests that away from the constraints of the commercial film industry, greater opportunities exist to explore the representation of women's lives and their subjective experience.

Emma Hedditch

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