New Publication: British Women Amateur Filmmakers. National Memories and Global Identities.

On the publication of their book, British Women Amateur Filmmakers. National Memories and Global Identities, Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes and Heather Norris Nicholson give an exclusive insight into the writing and research undertaken for WFTHN members.

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As taboos and patriarchal structures receded in the early twentieth century, societal and geo-political changes enabled, or required, women to live, work and behave differently from their predecessors.  More women became involved in amateur film production, both during the two decades following the First World War, when recreational filmmaking gained popularity as a costly hobby, and then again following the Second World War. At home and abroad, their self-expression and social purpose found fresh outlets via amateur filmmaking. Access to cine equipment, via family, friends and interest groups, enabled women to engage with film production in and away from where they lived and worked. Our book examines how and where British women amateur filmmakers produced and showed their films, what those experiences reveal about the women holding the cameras and the profoundly-changing twentieth century world they captured on film.

The book contextualises those early British amateur filmmakers’ experiences within their national and late colonial settings and then explores how it is possible to trace this activity through the twentieth-century: from these ‘reel’ pioneers to their successors, the digital amateur media makers of today. Our research revealed how they have been an often under-represented and undifferentiated presence within amateur film studies literature.

Through the prism of amateur cine/media practice, defined as the making and interpretation of films for personal and wider non-commercial use, we explore the impact of social, cultural and technological change on women’s lives. The study draws directly on archival evidence of women’s own capacity to film and the subject matter captured by their cinematic gaze. Their non-fiction footage is the main focus, although their involvement in other genres, particularly animation, is also considered, as is their significant contribution to club activities within the amateur film movement in Britain and elsewhere.   

figure 8.1 her second birthday

Figure 1: Still frame from K. Agnes Thubron: ‘Her Second Birthday’ (1932-3). © EAFA.

Their non-fiction films, in particular, tell a story about how they negotiated and documented social change as they cine-narrated their own lives and those of others through their cameras. Recovering these neglected endeavours expands our understanding of women’s amateur visual practice during decades that also saw professional production opportunities slowly opening for women. Indeed, early promotional materials suggest that, as from the earliest years of large-scale cinema production, women were involved not only as performers but also possibly as users of amateur cinematographic equipment within documentary production (Marion and Ruby Grierson, Evelyn Spice, Kay Mander, Jill Craigie), animation (Joy Batchelor) and educational broadcasting (Mary Field). Most importantly, successive generations of cine-women such as Eleanore Dalyell, Rosie Newman, Barbara Donaldson, Beryl Armstrong, Audrey Lewis and Wilma Gladstone filmed during decades when national boundaries and identities were transformed by war and independence movements within the British Empire.Their filmmaking also occured as Britain’s self-assurance at home and in the wider world was giving way to new national uncertainties and domestic preoccupations, visible in Ellaline Jennings’ adolescent school girls visiting the Lake District in the early postwar years or Kathleen Lockwood’s poignant record of industrial decline in northern England during the 1970s.

Evolving visual literacies surface through each successive generation as they experimented with the novelty of capturing movement on film. Their use of camera and sometimes their subsequent editing of the footage indicate their fascination with sustained focus and also their willingness to create the ‘longer look’ rather than merely ‘point and shoot’. Many women, like Lucy Fairbanks, Beryl Armstrong, Kathleen Lockwood, Sheila Graber, Rosie Newman or Audrey Lewis, explored trick photography, early colour film stock, reversals, stop motion, animation and slow-motion techniques.

As with the gender politics that underpin much of women’s storytelling, other political concerns inform their narratives. Undoubtedly, for some filmmakers, a specific political moment or occasion was precisely the impetus to film, and their unique cinematic gaze as bystanders to the action are now particularly significant. No one featured in the book directly filmed activists’ placards, though perhaps Rosie Newman’s brief scene filmed at the Chawpatty beach in Bombay (Mumbai) in the early 1930s, or Wilma Gladstone’s films of Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957 indicate more nuanced recordings of anti-imperial protests and emerging postcolonial national identities. However, it appears that women amateur filmmakers were often fully aware of wider issues and, depending on where they were – whether as the wife of a civil servant or missionary during a posting overseas – their amateur films of apparently mundane scenes of family life could also include rare historical, visual testimonies. This is demonstrated by one amateur filmmaker’s choice to film friends picnicking in the English countryside with Enoch Powell, one of the most controversial figures in Britain’s post-war race relations history. Status and ideology, therefore, subtly determined subjects and sequences shot by women wherever they were living in later imperial or newly independent countries, in England’s home counties, as Scottish aristocrats or as teachers in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s.

figure 1.2 mrs movie maker from biokam manual

Figure 2: Photograph from an early Biokam Manual ( c.1899). Reproduced from Amateur Movie Maker (1961) © Amateur Cine Enthusiast.

Our book presents and analyses amateur films made by over forty British women whose productions  span over eighty years, and acts as an initial survey of the films available and of their specific visual literacy. Their hobbyist practice, historically underexplored, has emerged in our study as highly-nuanced and multi-facetted.  These women filmmakers constructed a subtler range of cultural and oppositional identities; took the opportunity to migrate artistically from fixed and established social networks; to experience personal rites of passage and to build new, self-empowering roles as producers of global culture. Our analysis, therefore, goes beyond interrogating the visible in different parts of Britain, during international travel or in a postcolonial world order. Instead, these women amateurs’ films testify to their own creativity and agency, by what they valued in their surroundings and how they sought to share their beliefs with the world. We have begun to uncover their rich, unique legacy, both as social documentary and as part of a more inclusive cultural history of women’s filmmaking practice.

Notes to Figures:

1.  Figure 1: K. Agnes Thubron is one of the early filmmakers discussed in the book and the earliest woman amateur animator we have found during our research. EAFA stands for East Anglian Film Archive.

2.  The caption for Figure 2 reads: ‘Mrs Movie-Maker of 1989.  This illustration is reproduced from the instruction book of the Biokam which first appeared in that year and is believed to be the first amateur movie camera. Note the hand crank and the use of a tripod!’

Dr Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes is an Affiliated Lecturer in new and amateur media at the Department of Social Anthropology, an Affiliated Scholar at the Centre of South Asian Studies, a Member of the Cambridge Digital Humanities Network, and Fellow and Tutor at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge. Her work as a visual anthropologist relies primarily on imperial history and gender studies. 

Dr Heather Norris Nicholson holds honorary research positions at the University of Huddersfield and also at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has encouraged archival, scholarly and popular interest in amateur film and independent forms of non-fiction film-making for decades through writing, teaching and community outreach.

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