Part 2 of a brief history
of the SFC based on an interview
with founding member Christine Bellamy
by Angela Martin
Like other women filmmakers working within the Women’s Liberation Movement, the four Sheffield women who had contributed to a series of radio programmes on women’s issues (Jenny Woodley, Christine Bellamy, Gill Booth and Barbara Fowkes), found that making those issues visible and visual was not a simple matter. In 1975, when the Sex Discrimination Act was passed, there was little satisfactory nursery provision, public transport was often unsympathetic, abortion provision was difficult to access and very much contested, equal pay and opportunities were sparsely achieved. The two programmes the women made for Sheffield’s Cablevision station, about provision for under-fives and the difficulty of travelling on buses with pushchairs (see Pt 1 of this blog), featured them with their own children in representative situations, and included vox pops from the street. The station balked at the proposal for a programme about abortion being a woman’s choice, leading them to leave and make an independent film on the subject, A Woman Like You, in 1976.
All three of Sheffield Film Co-op’s first films – A Woman Like You, That’s No Lady (1977) and Jobs for the Girls (1979) – involved drama-documentary. For A Woman Like You, it would have been hard to find a woman who had had an abortion experience willing to talk about it on camera. The main character – a woman with children already (so, not the presumed child-hater stereotyped by anti-abortionists) – was played by a local actor who had appeared in several films by Sheffield City Polytechnic art students; her children were played by Woodley’s and other parts were played by “mates”. Bellamy recalls, “over the next few years, we got through quite a few friends and family members”.
That’s No Lady, about domestic violence, featured a sexist stand-up comic, played by Woodley’s husband, Rick, who, for the film, performed to an empty working men’s club and was edited with shots of an audience for a ‘real’ comic at another time. Bellamy’s children played the children of the central couple – the actors appearing as different couples in different settings. Nowhere is actual violence portrayed directly: in one scene, the husband aims to hit his wife but the action is cut before its completion; in another, neighbours (and the audience) hear a violent row through the wall, and the neighbouring husband tells his wife to turn up the tv – it’s between husband and wife, don’t get involved. The film ends, evocatively, with an extreme wide shot of the city, suggesting that the violence portrayed could be going on in any house on any street. Jobs for the Girls told the story of a girl who wants to be a motor mechanic but finds little support from family and friends She does end up in the business, but only in the spare parts department.
From the start, the Co-op had a policy of showing their films as widely as possible and of accompanying screenings with discussion. This usually led to other film subject suggestions. That’s No Lady (1977) was commissioned and funded by the National Women’s Aid Federation, who wanted something about domestic violence, but as light as possible and preferably with humour, and allowed the Co-op to work out how. In any case, once again, actual situations couldn’t be shown – even the women didn’t talk about it easily; and the cost of film stock, of course, limited the amount of material that could be shot.
The women decided on the name Sheffield Film Co-op for the group when they applied to Yorkshire Arts Association for funding support for A Woman Like You, and the first thing to fill in on the form was ‘Name of organisation’. Woodley, who directed A Woman Like You (1976), with Booth, who had worked with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, told Margaret Dickinson, author of Rogue Reels, that the YAA was split about the application, but that it did fund the film stock. In fact, the inclusion in the film of, as Bellamy put it, “graphic” slides of “what we thought was easy-to-perform local anaesthetic abortion”, provided by the first doctor in Sheffield to follow the 1967 provision, turned out to be rather disturbing. Nevertheless, the film was undoubtedly well-received by women at consciousness-raising meetings. BPAS contributed £300, and the group received a personal cheque for £25 from Lady Gardner (Muriel Box). Screenings of the first two films then led to Jobs for the Girls, which was funded by the Equal Opportunities Commission, with additional funding from Manpower Services and YAA.
All three films were collaboratively scripted by the group, who wrote ideas in pairs or singly before group discussion. The women’s movement was very keen on this kind of collaboration (though it was often found to be very difficult), and it worked well enough for these films. Crewing the early films was “mixed and matched”, as a matter of policy, since, with no previous experience, the Co-op women didn’t know what they might prefer to do or would be good at. On A Woman Like You, Woodley directed with Booth (who worked for BPAS), the camera was operated by whichever Co-op member could be present (bearing in mind childcare etc.) and Moya Burns, with Bellamy, did the sound. Barrie Callaghan (Sheffield City Poly) did the lighting when it was required, but most of the lighting was natural. The film was edited by Woodley in consultation with the others, as part of her coursework for the SCP filmmaking course. Barbara Fowkes directed That’s No Lady, with Woodley; Burns, a worker-member of the Co-op before going freelance, did sound, and another SCP student, Alf Bower, did the lighting.
In the late 1970s, Sheffield Independent Film (see Pt 1 of this blog) became stronger, and a national Independent Filmmakers Association had emerged. There were discussions at the time about the funding of independent work, involving the IFA, the film and television industry trade union ACTT (now BECTU), and the British Film Institute. A code of practice was developed, which allowed ACTT to recognise ‘non-mainstream’ production and its public regional funding, and to open up membership to its workers – who would previously have been required to have a job to get a ‘card’ but have a card to get a job. In 1980, the Co-op received revenue funding from the YAA Community Arts Panel, joined ACTT and began their first continuously waged work as filmmakers. They applied to the BFI for revenue funding, in relation to a project on the 1915 rent strike in Glasgow. Red Skirts on Clydeside (1983) was largely funded by the BFI, plus a Sheffield City Council grant of about a fifth of the BFI’s, and by the Co-op’s own income from distribution and speaking fees. (Bellamy reports that the BFI’s contribution was delayed because Peter Greenaway’s The Draftsman’s Contract (1982) had gone over-budget.) The production cost around £55,800. In 1982, ACTT had instigated the Workshop Declaration, which allowed for the funding of workshops, with four waged workers, engaged in the integrated practice of research, distribution and education around the completion of one hour of television production a year. Red Skirts was funded under the Workshop Declaration, and later shown on television on Channel 4.
Red Skirts moved closer to more conventional documentaries but did not have a conventional narrating commentary. The group worked creatively with archive material (rostrom-shot by Begonia Tamarit) and commissioned a special score from Fish and Plume. At this point, Woodley and Bellamy were the only two remaining Co-op members. Fowkes had moved to London, Booth to another job and Burns had become a freelance sound recordist. Woodley and Bellamy researched, scripted and directed the film, which was the first Co-op production employing women with filmmaking experience in crew roles but who, as a conscious policy, were at the start of their careers: Anne Cottringer (lighting, with Sarah McCarthy), Caroline Spry (camera, with Caroline Laidler and Christine Wilkinson). Burns did the sound, and Woodley edited.
Around this longer film for television, the Co-op made four short documentary films between 1980 and 1986, more-or-less ‘in-house’, and with the intention of working very closely with women in different situations, but not carrying that through to the filmmaking: A Question of Choice (1982) about the lack of job choice for women with children at school and needing working hours to suit; Changing Our Lives (1984) on the setting up of a community centre by and for women with scant education, no job opportunities and barely a living wage; Women of Steel (1984) recalling the contribution of women to munitions production during the Second World War; and For a Living Wage (1986) documenting the major low-paying areas of work and the underlying causes.
In 1985, the Co-op received its first funding from Channel 4 (one of twelve workshops to be funded by the channel at the height of the Declaration). Woodley left the Co-op that year and became the ACTT Officer responsible for Workshop sector membership, following her contribution to the development of the Declaration. Chrissie Stansfield had joined the Co-op in 1983-4 and Bernadette Moloney joined shortly after. Let Our Children Grow Tall (1986, for Channel 4) was the Co-op’s first major video production, running 52 mins, the Channel 4 hour. Booth did the research and co-directed the film with Bellamy, who also did the lighting. Nancy Shiesari did camera. The title came from a speech by PM Margaret Thatcher (who, obviously, thought that, even so, some children should grow taller than others), and the film showed up the impossibility of children living in poverty ‘growing tall’ under her government. The argument was coherently made by women otherwise regarded as uneducated and ‘useless’, who, as Bellamy says, “were political, knew where the politics came from, and knew where they stood on it”. Thatcher was represented in the film by animation (animator Gillian Lacey), and voiced by Steve Nallon, the actor then portraying her on TV’s Spitting Image.
The last four films by the Co-op were made for Channel 4 under the Workshop Agreement. In 1987, the Co-op’s year of maximum funding, Stansfield directed Bringing It All Back Home on the movement of finance from Britain’s heavy industries (notably coal and steel) to ‘enterprise zones’ in the then neglected areas of this country and in the ‘third world’. Nina Kellgren did the camerawork, and music was written by Anthea Gomez. The following year, Booth wrote and directed Diamonds in Brown Paper, a 52 minute fiction about the steel industry’s buffer girls in Sheffield. It was filmed by Nancy Schiesari, with Stansfield and edited by Virginia Heath; Diane Ruston did the sound with Bellamy. Moloney produced the film with new Co-op member, Maya Chowdhry. Bellamy directed Thank You, That’s All I Knew in 1990, about an innovative Yemeni Literacy Scheme in Sheffield; and Burns made the final Sheffield Film Co-op film, Running Gay (1991), about the Gay Olympics held that year in Canada.
The decision to ‘cease trading’ came with the end of funding, but the workers were happy to end on a high note and move on at such a productive point, in various new directions. Moloney now produces a trade union paper in Australia; Burns is a published and broadcast poet and playwright; Booth carried on with the screenings of Diamonds; Bellamy continued to work as a sound recordist on various independent productions and then taught sound and radio at the University of Lincolnshire and is now retired; Stansfield continued to work as a camerawoman and producer and now teaches at Sheffield Hallam University.
The films, though, carry on with a life of their own. Several were and are distributed by Cinema of Women, Cinenova and Women Make Movies. Bellamy was invited to two film festivals in the mid-1980s, a women’s festival in Poland and a women’s section of the Derry festival, and, despite later titles, it was That’s No Lady, made a decade earlier, that they wanted to screen. Women of Steel (1984) was recently screened to a packed house in the context of a campaign initiated by The Sheffield Star, and backed by Gordon Brown, to erect a monument to the women munitions workers of the Second World War. And Diamonds in Brown Paper was shown to another packed house in memory of Gill Booth, who died in 2011; 75 copies of the film were sold at the event. Red Skirts is undoubtedly going to run again during the forthcoming centenary events commemorating the First World War.
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. She edited the Sheffield Film Co-op films Let Our Children Grow Tall, Bringing It All Back Home, Thank You, That’s All I Know and Running Gay.