A response to 'Why I am reluctant to watch Suffragette' by director Sarah Gavron
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The following is a response to Halimah Manan's opinion article Why I am reluctant to watch Suffragette, from the film's director Sarah Gavron. In replying to Halimah Manan’s article, I want first of all to acknowledge her frustration at representation. I agree that it is vital to draw attention to omissions in film. I am acutely aware of how few films there are with women - and even fewer with people of colour -- and fewer still with women of colour. In amongst many positive responses to our film so far, a range of tweets has pointed out the many stories we have not told. I have also received anti-feminist tweets from men. I knew in advance that when you make a film about a political historical subject you have to be prepared to answer many issues. In the six years of researching and working on the script, we explored many possibilities and interrogated how we could use them. Our narrative choices perforce omitted many, not because they were in any way invalid, but because a narrative cinema film could not tell the whole enormous story and do it justice in a couple of hours. I should like to explain some of the context within which Suffragette was conceived and made. I am committed to telling stories about people that we don't normally see on our screens. My first cinema film, Brick Lane, had a cast only of people of colour and a woman as the protagonist. That film got made because it came on the back of a popular novel. In this second film, SUFFRAGETTE, we have employed women in front of and behind the camera, in unprecedented numbers. And before ever that happened, we worked for six years to convince anyone to fund it. It is a political film about women and by women: a very tough proposition in an industry where white, straight men dominate mainstream narratives and where around 90% and sometimes above, of films each year are made by men. But your question is: why doesn’t SUFFRAGETTE feature women of colour? There are two aspects to the answer. One is that filmic narrative has to focus on a specific story to explore a general theme. The other is rooted in current understanding of the historical record of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK. As is known, the campaign for the vote for women lasted for over 50 years and involved thousands of women. We hoped that by focusing on one specific story, the specifics might become universal. We narrowed our focus to one year: 1912-1913 - the year leading up to the end of the campaign in which civil disobedience was at its height and the British government at its most brutal. We further focused it on the story of one specific group of East London working women. We wanted to explore what pushed these working class women, who had no entitlement and no platform and are so rarely featured, to join the movement: to endure police brutality, commit arson, go to prison, hunger strike and be force-fed at such personal cost, often losing their jobs, homes, and families. We want the story to resonate with women all over the world today of all ages and all cultures, all religions - and also with anyone - male or female, fighting inequality, anyone who had endured police violence, who had turned to activism…today. Yet we were all along aware that we left much out. There are many more stories to be told. To name a few, there were: the national suffrage pilgrimage by the peaceful constitutional suffragists, and that campaign, led by Millicent Fawcett, who arguably achieved as much as the militants; the dramas surrounding the leaders and the schisms within the movement; the many women in the regions of Britain who waged strenuous local campaigns; the lesbian and bisexual members of the movement.
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