Panning for gold in the amateur film collection of Wessex Film and Sound Archive

by Zoë Viney Burgess

“Women were both ‘there’ and ‘not there’”[1] is a phrase coined by Jane Gaines in her discussion of women’s work in early film history, and it is a phrase that I continue to return to during both my work as Film Curator at Wessex Film and Sound Archive (WFSA) and in my PhD research which focuses on gender and class in the amateur film collection there covering 1920-1950.

Before I started my PhD studies I had been working for several years with the regional film and sound collection at WFSA, and the deeper I delved into the collection and the more knowledge I accumulated, I realised how little I knew about the women amateur filmmakers in the archive – even in very simple (statistical) terms. Having watched hundreds (if not thousands) of films, the same few names always surfaced.

These women, the nuggets of gold left in the pan possess ‘weightier’ catalogue entries, abundant with biographical detail and clear unambiguous attribution. The ‘lighter’ catalogue entries – with patchier biographies, ambiguous or even incorrect attributions simply float off back into the semi-anonymity of the catalogue. It is only through a systematic collection survey that I have been able to expand our awareness of the filmmakers whose work is present in the archive – by considering those records with clear, if few, attributions (the nuggets!) but also asking questions of other records where attribution seemed to be based on wobbly foundations.

Nancy Bealing
Mrs Nancy Bealing tends a display of chrysanthemums at the family nursery in Swaythling, Southampton. Credit: WFSA.

There are multiple instances where a male filmmaker is given sole credit for work which can be proven to be the work of more than one person – husband and wife teams, fathers and daughters, and cine clubs with many members. WFSA holds around seven cine club collections and not one of the records for these collections foregrounds the name of their female membership (which was statistically at least 30%). Cine clubs are particularly problematic and perfectly encapsulate Gaines’ ‘there’ and ‘not there’ expression. Women are on-screen, and they appear in the on-screen credits (they are THERE), yet so often the attribution foregrounds the male depositor, who is often the long-term custodian of the cinefilm and doesn’t always include a list of on-screen credits. Therefore, when we search the catalogue they are NOT THERE.

A complex matrix of factors contributes to the creation of catalogue entries for film collections – and not just at the point that a film enters an archive. Even before the film reaches an archive it is subject to the authorial influence of its producers (Who labelled the film can? Whose names appear as on-screen credits?) and its custodians (Are they his/her films? Or is there an oral tradition that says whose films they are?). In my own experience, even women who were actively recording life with their cine cameras downplayed their output. Nancy Bealing, who I interviewed in 2010, spoke to me about her husband’s filmmaking in very deferential terms and referred to her own output as ‘just one film’. It transpired that she had indeed produced one large reel of film – but it was an edited sequence, shot on at least twenty different occasions over a number of years. Her husband had produced many more films, and she defined herself in relation to his output – despite her own sustained cine-use.

A Bealing Family Snapshot
Mrs Nancy Bealing, seen here far right. Other members of the Bealing family feature in Mr Bealing’s films, and have been helpfully identified for us by Mrs Bealing. Credit: WFSA.

As Melanie Bell points out, women’s work in film is often fragmented and episodic. In the case of amateur filmmaking the episodes quite often reflect the inverse of a woman’s working life (if she had one), with a greater output during child-rearing years.  Acknowledging fragmented involvement in amateur cinematography has also become key in my research – not all women involved with amateur film were wielding Pathé-Babies and Cine Kodaks and splicing reels together into the night. Many women were engaged with cine in supposedly less involved ways – as contributors to family movies: stage-managing participants, adjusting lighting, holding the camera or making edits. Female members of cine clubs might take on more formal industry informed roles in costume, set design, lighting, make up etc. Some women’s only recorded roles in cine club activities might be providing refreshments, but even this in itself can provide helpful clues about what cine-engagement meant for the communities in which clubs existed. 

For those interested in reading more on women amateur filmmakers in the wider UK the Film Archives UK (FAUK) commissioned report Invisible Innovators highlights some of the key challenges in researching the work of women amateur filmmakers, and the Women in Focus project seeks to address these.

You can also see Nancy Bealing’s film reel here

AUTHOR NOTE : Statistics referenced above are sourced from my (as yet unfinished!) thesis ‘Gender and Class in the amateur film collection of Wessex Film & Sound Archive 1920-1950’. Nancy Bealing’s film reel with be available shortly on WFSA’s YouTube channel.

WFTHN NOTE : See also this relevant blog link :

Zoë Viney Burgess is a Postgraduate Research Student in Film at the University of Southampton and also works as Curator of Film at Wessex Film & Sound Archive (WFSA), based in Winchester. Zoë’s research seeks to explore gender and class in the amateur film collection of WFSA between the years of 1920-1950. She has a background in historic textiles and dress and in particular the interaction between gender, socio-economics and lived experience.

WFSA is a regional repository for historic film and sound items from Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and holds over 38,000 items. This includes some 12,000 cinefilms. Zoë seeks to explore how issues of visibility, attribution and representation impact on our understanding of this regional collection and how this can serve to contribute to a wider view of amateur filmmaking in the UK.

[1] J Gaines, Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? (Chicago: University of Illinois Press], 2018), p4.