Identifying the experiences of Frances, Ivy, Nora and …

… many other women in the
first generation of British cine-clubs

by Francis Dyson

A scene from Sally Sallies Forth (1929)

Sally Sallies Forth (1929) was heralded at the time as the first amateur film produced wholly and exclusively by women. It is now part of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC) film collection held at the East Anglian Film Archive (EAFA). To see the whole film click here.

In recent years the involvement of women in amateur film-making has attracted the attention of a number of scholars and film archivists.  As far as the involvement of British women in amateur film production is concerned, valuable work has been performed in identifying individual women amateur film-makers in the 1920s and 1930s.  This scholarly work usually makes use of home movies, highlights the work of individuals, and focuses attention on the person in possession of the camera, identifying in the process films produced by women as important historical records in their own right.  However, the focus on female film-makers also overlooks the experiences of many women who engaged with film production in the environment of Britain’s inter-war cine-clubs, particularly in the production of amateur fiction films in the cine-club studio environment.

Amateur filmmaking equipment advertisementCine-clubs emerged in Britain as sites for an amateur engagement with film production, distribution and exhibition from the mid-1920s.  Still relatively unexplored as a collective form of leisure, reports submitted by cine-clubs to amateur film-making magazines in the 1930s indicate that these clubs offered women opportunities to engage with film-making. Yet the contributions they made to club life were only very rarely acknowledged by these reports, despite the fact that still photographs the magazines included of cine-club productions showed women taking part. Most often, however, this was in roles that did not involve filming.  Unlikely to be credited on screen, recorded or valorised in amateur film magazines, this activity falls into what has been referred to in the commercial environment as the invisible labour of women.

In April 2014, I presented a paper, ‘Sally Sallies Forth: The involvement of women in the first generation of British cine-clubs’, at Doing Women’s Film and TV History, the second international conference of WFTHN.  Using information I had accumulated over the last five years about the involvement of women in the first generation of British cine-clubs, I appraised the activities of women in the collaborative environment of the London Amateur Cinematographers’ Association (London ACA), one of the first British inter-war cine-clubs.

Amateur film title writerMy paper identified, in this inter-war middle class association, an environment that offered women an interaction with film culture and film production.  It also identified a clear contradiction between the culture of the London ACA, which encouraged individuals irrespective of gender to develop skills and an understanding of all aspects of film production, and the opportunities open to women in the production environment.  Although it is clear that women in the London ACA were not restricted in any formal way from participating in the club’s activities including film production, it is nevertheless apparent from my research that the production culture in the cine-club might have prevented them from participating on an equal basis in film production.

While it is difficult to detect ‘formal gendered pathways’ as well as ‘more informal mechanisms, habits and working practices’ in a leisure environment in the same way that Vicky Ball and Melanie Bell are able to in their current research project on the organisation of labour in film and television industries, it is notable that the experiences of women in the production environment of the London ACA were different to men.  Women in the London ACA only very rarely moved across different production roles.  Drawing on information I had pieced together about the experiences of Frances Lascot, Ivy Low and Nora Pfeil, my paper speculated on the networks that existed in the London ACA, the opportunities available to individuals and the informal gendered pathways that existed in the club.  I observed, as in the case of Sally Sallies Forth, that it was possible for women in the London ACA to control productions and to undertake a variety of production roles but, unless a woman was able to break into male social networks, to do so required determination, finances and an ability to construct her own networks in the club.

Amateur film editor[Additional note: A couple of decades later, Joyce Skinner (b. 1919) started filming in 1949 for a neighbour’s family occasion in Solihull, with a camera he had hired. A teacher, Joyce then began a series of films about school skiing trips, among other topics. The owner of the camera equipment shop it came from was impressed by her early results and suggested she join the South Birmingham Cine Society. Several years later, in the early 1960s, the men of the group formed a sub-group they called ‘the keen types’, so Joyce and a group of their wives made their own film, A Switch in Time (1963), a 10min 16sec fiction. That year, the SBCS set up an overall prize (as opposed to 16mm or 8mm), for which Joyce designed the silver plate; following her first award of it in 1971, she was awarded it more than any other member. Joyce made – and has continued to make – films throughout her life, some commissioned (in the 1950s she found herself next to the BBC cameraman at the women’s hockey finals at Wembley) and several prize-winning in the Edinburgh International Amateur Film Festival. She was interviewed earlier this year for the BECTU Oral History Project. Note contributed by Angela Martin].

This blog was first published on 05/06/14 on http://auteusetheory.blogspot.co.uk/ who we thank for allowing its re-publication here.

Francis Dyson completed his PhD on the subject “Challenging assumptions about amateur film of the inter-war years: Ace Movies and the first generation of London based cine-clubs”.

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