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A Woman's Viewfinder: The Camera is Ours on DVD

  Women documentarians have been around ever since the medium began, and indeed after the silent era, when female directors were thin on the ground in the fictional world of features, they continued to be a presence in factual filmmaking, and that tradition has carried on to the present day. Despite institutionalised prejudice from the men who ran the studios and the expectations they were subjected to socially, being expected to start a family rather than hold down a job creating films, many of the women involved made a huge contribution to the industry. The Camera is Ours: Britain's Women Documentary Makers is a two-DVD set from The British Film Institute collecting a number of valuable examples.

First up on Disc 1 is Beside the Seaside (1935), named of course after the popular holiday tune, and directed by Marion Grierson. She was the youngest sister of pioneer John Grierson who coined the word "documentary"; another sister, Ruby, also joined the business, but they have both been overshadowed by their influential brother. Marion's twenty-minute seaside extravaganza adopted one of the most popular choices for documentary subjects for many decades, though she added elements that made this a cut above, such as a poem by W.H. Auden on the soundtrack. The only misstep to modern eyes is the inclusion of a minstrel show which kills the atmosphere stone dead for about a minute, but she recovers with images of holidaymakers either cavorting in the sea or dozing in deckchairs (some in suits and ties!). With inventive slow motion, this was very pleasant.

Behind the Scenes (1938) took a trip to another tourist destination, London Zoo, from Evelyn Spice, looking ahead to the televisual likes of Animal Magic, the children's wildlife show where presenter Johnny Morris would put comedy voiceovers to the creatures. Spice didn't go that far - she had a narrator with perfect RP instead, but the light feeling of comedy bubbling under the images, that these animals were here to entertain us, was noticeable throughout. Now zoos are not as popular as they once were, this looks rather alien to the twenty-first century view, yet somehow Spice's genuine interest in the chimps, lions and exotic birds is conveyed in her short to the audience even now. Some of it is alarming, and the keepers seem to treat their charges like children, but watching a hummingbird recover from "torpor" is undeniably fascinating.

Third is They Also Serve (1940), a nine-minute tribute to Britain's housewives from the aforementioned director Ruby Grierson. Would a male director have handled this material in such a direct, non-patronising fashion? Perhaps, but you can tell Grierson was aware there was no room for anything but the most gentle of humour, and sincerity had to be paramount as we follow a typical, middle-aged housewife of the day who tends to not only her own family, but her neighbours as well. We can tell this emphasis on the Home Front was something that she was invested in, though her next film was to capture far more of the war itself, a documentary, rather than a restaging, about refugee children. It was while accompanying them on a ship across the Atlantic that they were torpedoed by the Nazis and hundreds died, including Ruby and dozens of children.

4 and 20 Fit Girls (1940) was one from the canon of the prolific Mary Field, and at first glance is a somewhat hilarious promotion of keep fit classes during the early months of the war, here telling the female target audience that they will feel so much better in mind, body and spirit if they keep in shape with these exercises. There are signs that this was meant to be amusing, like staying healthy was all a big lark as the male narrator by turns chides and encourages a group of young ladies arranged as if Field had a hankering to be more like Busby Berkeley. But there was a serious intent: this was all to keep the women "left at home" feeling a sense of camaraderie as the war raged, the belief that physical wellbeing was echoed in mental wellbeing, not so radical from what we are told now. And although tastes have changed, was this so different from a Pilates class?

Mind you, if Field was prolific, compare her to Muriel Box, who was practically a one-woman industry, churning out so many documentary subjects that she is, to this day, the British female director with the most credits to her name. She had to start somewhere, so after making her way up from continuity she directed The English Inn (1941), produced by her husband to be Sydney Box and under her maiden name of Baker. It was a celebration of the more admirable side of English drinking culture, where that camaraderie was important once again, except here it appeared to be more between ale-quaffing, horny-handed sons of the soil who frequent rural taverns with, we are often being told, historically significant names over the door. Yet Muriel was able to discern a womanly influence in this apparently male preserve, and there are ladies there if you look for them.

Birth-Day from 1945 was a stern warning under the guise of reassurance from director Budge Cooper, where the infant mortality rate in Scotland was addressed. The scandal was causing much concern and this information short was regarded as a corrective, reasoning that if expectant mothers were able to receive expert medical advice as soon as possible, then they would be able to take better care of themselves and not listen to old wives' tales, literally depicted as being told by old wives here. The mother was played by minor legend of Scottish stage and screen Molly Weir, and she looked suitably concerned as she was lectured to, as did the actor playing her husband unable to return because of the war who gets the rundown in childbirth from his superior officer (as do we, of course). Although well-meant, it did simplify the poverty-based causes of the issue.

More political than that was Homes for the People, the second short on Disc 2, and with good reason: it had been commissioned by the Labour Party to help with its campaigning in the General Election in 1945, and obviously succeeded. Director Kay Mander used the technique of asking "ordinary", working class women, four from England (two from London) and one from Wales, about the drawbacks of their home. From their own mouths they condemn the housing crisis, informing Mander (at least that's presumably who they are talking to, just off-camera) about unsanitary washing and bathing conditions, poor allowances for cooking, and cramped living spaces where privacy is a problem. It's a stark piece, an indictment of a housing market that was stuck in the past and needing a boost of investment to improve; to an extent, it helped.

Jill Craigie was one of the pioneers of the documentary form in Britain, and she is represented by a short that by many accounts was not pleasurable to make, Children of the Ruins (1948). It was intended to promote UNESCO and its educational remit, the purpose being to educate the children of the world since that would leave them both with the skills to negotiate the world and able to build a better one from the "ruins" of World War 2. In practice, Craigie assembled as many clips and extracts showing children at a severe disadvantage because of the war, and strung them all together, with a mention of UNESCO near the end that came across as almost perfunctory. It's quite a powerful effort, but not thanks to the hope it was intended to put across, more because of the grim present it depicted for the millions of poverty and conflict-stricken young ones.

Part of the NHS recruitment drive from the late nineteen-forties onwards, one method was to produce information films designed to encourage new staff, and reassure those who may be having mixed feelings about entering the profession. One of the most daunting departments was that of mental health, for centuries the stigma around the conditions had seen all sorts of indignities and worse visited upon sufferers, but The Troubled Mind (1951) sought to assuage any fears that either mixing with the mentally ill was fruitless as a job, or that they were all dangerous and best avoided. Adrienne Corri starred as the student nurse who is in the Shenley Hospital, possibly the most progressive in the country, and she acted out staged scenes of what new recruits should expect, as well as a lesson in why this occupation could see "three quarters" of patients recover, and therefore be worthwhile to pursue their recovery.

Sarah Erulkar is, like all these women directors, a name that should be better known, but when it comes to their gender it tends to be the fiction features that gain the focus of the popular imagination. Watch Erulkar's Something Nice to Eat (1967), however, and you will understand how rewarding these short documentaries can be; it was sponsored by the Gas Council to promote cookery with their product, and the Anglo-Indian-Jewish filmmaker seized the opportunity with huge enthusiasm, using it as an instruction for the housewives of Britain - and not only them - to be more imaginative in their culinary influences. Taking France as a starting point, so a basic but rewarding souffle is created, it suggests all sorts of international solutions for the simple but often frustrating question, "What's for dinner tonight?" and includes a guest star in glamorous contemporary model Jean Shrimpton too. The only colour film in the set, it uses its visual opportunities with impressive invention, stylish and attractive.

[As special features on this BFI DVD set, there is a ninety-minute film on Craigie, and two shorter clips on Mander and Erulkar. Also included is an informative booklet, very helpful in writing this article.

Click here to order The Camera is Ours from the BFI site.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018