Out of the shade and into the limelight: Women Amateur Filmmakers in Britain

This blog post originally appeared on Autese Theory: A Blog on Women’s Cinema, and has been reproduced with permission.

Author: Sarah Hill (AHRC Cultural Engagement Fellow, UEA Department of Film, Television and Media Studies)

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Cat 3580 - Make Up - Still 2

Joanna Fryer, Make-Up (1978)

This International Women’s Day, the East Anglian Film Archive (EAFA), part of the University of East Anglia, has revealed over one hundred newly-digitised films by women amateur filmmakers. This fascinating collection offers unprecedented insights into the concerns and approaches of amateur female filmmakers working between the 1920s and late-1980s. These Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC) award-winning films showcase an impressive variety of themes and topics, including observations of life in Britain (and abroad) and insights into the various social and cultural changes that took place over the period. These themes are explored through dramas, comedies, documentaries, animated films and travelogues.

The films also highlight the different ways in which women amateur filmmakers worked during the last century. Previously assumed to play a secondary or incidental role in amateur film productions, the research undertaken at EAFA during the cataloguing and digitisation of this collection demonstrates a more complex and varied range of production practices. These films were made by lone filmmakers, cine club teams, husband and wife partnerships, young women, students and children. For example, research carried out by Dr Francis Dyson into partnerships such as Stuart and Laurie Day revealed that women were key to such creative collaborations, while the all-female team of Sally Sallies Forth (Frances Lascot, 1928) arose out of cine-club interests. Indeed, the film is credited as the first amateur film produced wholly and exclusively by women.

Many of the women amateur filmmakers went on to make films professionally and the films featured in this collection offer a rare glimpse at the beginnings of the filmmaking styles they would go on to develop professionally. For example, Joanna Fryer’s film Make-Up (1978), produced when she was a student, demonstrates her skill for sketch animation which she would later use as an animator on The Snowman (1982). Meanwhile, animator Sheila Graber’s early films from the 1970s were screened at IAC festivals and seen by an agent, which led to her working on the Just So Stories (1979) and Paddington (1975-1986), and she continues to produce short films today.

The films also offer unique perspectives on significant historical and cultural moments, such as Eustace and Eunice Alliott’s travelogues, which were produced during their trips around Europe in the 1930s. The Alliott’s snapshots of their daily life on their travels are underscored by a sense of foreboding as they depict Europe on the brink of war. On the other hand, sometimes a film only becomes significant long after it was made, as is the case with Her Second Birthday (circa. 1934). The film captures a two-year-old girl playing in the garden and was not initially intended to be shown outside the family. This little girl grew up to be June Thorburn, the British actor who starred in films such as The Cruel Sea (1953) and Tom Thumb (1958), Thorburn was killed in an air crash in 1967, aged 36.

These distinctive films shed light on the contribution women have made to amateur filmmaking in the twentieth century, and they are soon to take their place in the limelight as films are due to be screened in selected cinemas across the UK from the 3rd of March 2016 to celebrate International Women’s Day. This will be followed in the coming weeks by special screenings and events to be announced. You can also find out more about the films via Twitter @EAFAAmateurFilm and Facebook.

The Women Amateur Filmmakers in Britain catalogue and a selection of the digitised films can be accessed here. For more information on the collection, or to arrange a screening, please contact Sarah Hill at the University of East Anglia.

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