Part 1 of a brief history
of the SFC based on an interview
with founding member Christine Bellamy
by Angela Martin
Sheffield Film Co-op did not begin its life fully formed as a filmmaking group. It grew out of the new/second women’s liberation movement of the early 70s, which was variously engaging in raising consciousness about issues women faced in their domestic and/or work lives. This engagement produced differing analyses, ideas and practical approaches and soon highlighted the need to disseminate feminist ideas about the issues to a wider audience than those women already attending meetings. How to do it?
One group was lucky to have contact with BBC Radio Sheffield’s Education Officer, Dave Sheasby, an innovative and progressive broadcaster and playwright. He suggested – with exceptional encouragement for the time – that they make a series of local radio programmes, entitled overall Not Just a Pretty Face, each exploring different demands of the women’s liberation movement. In 1971, these were: equal pay, education and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion rights; free 24hr nurseries. (In 1975 demands were added, for financial and legal independence, and an end to discrimination against lesbians and a woman’s right to choose her own sexuality.) As a mother of very young children, Christine Bellamy worked in the sub-group that looked at nursery facilities. Dave Sheasby helped the women structure their ideas (he was not the kind of commissioning editor to oblige them to form their ideas in his image) and taught them how to edit and how to get the best sound quality when recording.
Following these programmes, Bellamy, with Jenny Woodley, Gill Booth and Barbara Fowkes, thought about other possible media production subjects, and were again fortunate in that Sheffield had a new Cablevision broadcast station that was being fed to around 50,000 homes in the city. The station invited participation from local groups with particular interests and offered them technical support. What largely emerged were television programmes about topics like fly fishing, dog racing, pigeon fancying. The women who had by then successfully produced radio programmes on women’s concerns saw Cablevision as a potentially useful channel for more media production addressed to local women. Their first programme addressed the issue of moving about the city with young children – at the time women with pushchairs were not welcomed or even tolerated on buses, and crossing major roads often meant an underpass with a considerable number of steps either side that were difficult to manage with pushchair, shopping and, perhaps, small children as well as babies.
At first the Cablevision men thought the women “were a joke”, and responded with one themselves by, as Bellamy recalls, “referring to us as ‘our four housewives’”, but they soon realised that “we knew what we wanted”. Most of what the women made for Cablevision was shot on location, which involved “almost a removal van” to get the huge and heavy cameras around. “We were able to operate them once they were in situ”, but the men had to help with the lifting and then stayed in the background during filming, although they, also “had to do the editing … we could be there but they had to do it.”
At the point at which the four women wanted to make a programme about abortion (the 1967 Abortion Act had not alleviated all the difficulties for women seeking to have one), they realised the film about it they wanted to make would not be possible in the “condescending” Cablevision context; they decided to move on and to make a film rather than a television programme. An additional element of Cablevision (and very important to the four women) was that, although it was available to 50,000 homes, there was no research on who was watching it, how large the audience for any programme was nor any feedback on audience response.
A Woman Like You (1976), which used a drama format to talk about whose choice abortion should be, was their first film and they formed themselves as Sheffield Film Co-op at the same time. It’s often referred to as Sheffield Women’s Film Coop, but in fact ‘Women’s’ was deliberately not included, because, although the Co-op was all women and their subject matter was to be women’s concerns, they continued to work with men on their films when helpful. In fact, collaboration was key for them. During this period, Barry Callaghan (who taught fiction) had set up a filmmaking course at Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University); Paul Haywood taught documentary on the course. Co-op members, together with former students of the SCP course and others involved in filmmaking, set up the Sheffield Independent Film Group with a view to sharing equipment, skills and work. Needing legal status as a group, but lacking any waged members, Callaghan, Haywood and Alf Bower (a then working former SCP student), who were very active in its establishment, became guarantors.
The exchange and flow between these groups is clear: Barry Callaghan lent the Co-op a camera to take apart and rebuild in order to learn how it worked; Jenny Woodley joined the SCP course as a ‘top-up’ student and Moya Burns, also at SCP and focusing on sound, joined the Co-op for A Woman Like You. This film was made with equipment from SCP, and Bellamy recollects that if the Co-op had any problems on the shoot “we would ring Barry up and he’d say ‘I’ll pop down’, and he’d cross Sheffield on his bike”. Sometimes the problem was faulty equipment and she rather amusingly reminisces about one instance when “we had to interview someone while Barry held two wires together.” A Woman Like You was followed a year later by That’s No Lady.
This week’s blog is based on a filmed interview by Angela Martin with Christine Bellamy on the Sheffield Film Co-op, for the BECTU History Project. A follow-up blog will be posted next week. SFC films are held by the BFI Archive; and Margaret Dickinson’s important book, Rogue Reels – Oppositional Film in Britain 1945-1990, BFI 1999, contains useful contextual material about the independent film movement and an earlier interview with Christine Bellamy and Jenny Woodley.
Angela Martin is currently a WFTHN Co-ordinator. Previously, she was an editor of publications at the BFI before becoming a film and video editor, including, for Channel 4, Spinster (1990), Bringing It All Back Home (1987), Refuse to Dance (1986) and Coal not Dole (1984). Later, she taught film studies and production at Sheffield Hallam University. She wrote ‘Refocusing Authorship in Women’s Filmmaking’ in J. Levitin et al (eds) Women Filmmakers Refocusing (UBC Press, 2003); ‘“Gilda didn’t do any of those things you’ve been losing sleep over”: the central women of 40s films noirs’ in E Ann Kaplan (ed.) Women in Film Noir (BFI, 1998); African Films: the Context of Production (BFI, 1982); ‘Chantal Akerman: a dossier’ in Feminist Review n3 1979. She programmed NFT film seasons in the 1970s on the films of ‘Mai ‘68’ and of Ousmane Sembene.