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A response to 'Why I am reluctant to watch Suffragette' by director Sarah Gavron

25th September 2015

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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. 

Sarah Gavron

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. 

As regards women of colour, we interrogated the photographic and written evidence of the movement.  

In America there were many, many women of colour at the time of the movement, a lot of whom suffered exclusion from the mainstream. Some defied this: Frances Harper among others recruited women of colour to the cause and she was eventually appointed to the national office. But it was not a simple picture: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the journalist who led an anti-lynching campaign in the late nineteenth century, organized the Alpha Suffrage Club among women of colour in Chicago and brought members with her to participate in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. The organizers of the march asked that they walk at the end of the parade. Such divisive prejudice has left lasting wounds and anger. 

In Britain, the picture was different. The diverse Britain of today did not exist then. There were indeed pockets of immigration, as Halimah states, before the World Wars and the mass Commonwealth immigrations of the 1950s and onwards. But these were relatively small populations concentrated in relatively few locations. The census records of the early 1900s do not record ethnic diversity, but judging by names, the photographic evidence and written accounts, it appears there were just two women of colour who joined the UK movement. These were two Asian women, who were both upper class - Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaiji Cama. 

There is a brilliant biography of Princess Sophia by Anita Anand. Sophia is an extraordinary, inspirational woman who deserves a biopic. But she was far from the working women whom we were portraying.  Social class was a big factor in influencing how women fighting for suffrage were treated by the authorities in Edwardian Britain. Both Sophia Duleep Singh and another aristocrat - the white woman, Lady Constance Lytton -- were dealt with quite differently from working women. The authorities resisted arresting Duleep Singh. Constance Lytton could only get equal treatment in prison when she disguised herself as a working woman. 

We found one photograph featuring women of colour. It is of a contingent of women from India in the Women’s Coronation procession that marked the coronation of George V in 1911. As we understand it, these were women who were active in India itself campaigning both for independence and for women’s rights. The Coronation procession was a non-militant event, and our film starts later and features no peaceful protests. 

We do not claim to have made no factual mistakes in the film SUFFRAGETTE, but we did consult and fact check widely in the hope that any fictional elements were not accidental.  We are happy that the debate will continue, as it must.    

It is worth remembering that we still know little about the majority of suffrage campaigners.  Also there is little consensus among historians of the movement on points such as the extent of working-class involvement, the impact of militancy or what finally won women the vote. There is no one agreed historical interpretation, no single ‘suffrage history.’ 

We have recently screened the film to a number of different groups in the U.S., to lively response. In discussions after seeing Suffragette, both women and men of colour voiced their feeling that scenes in the film showing civil disobedience and police violence against the women resonated with the current Black Lives Matter campaign. A Jamaican woman told us that she found echoes with her situation in the workplace. A victim of sexual violence shared how the sexual abuse storyline made her feel that her story was heard. 

Our film cannot succeed with everyone. But I do hope it provokes positive discourse and supports people’s desire to challenge inequality. We hope to run similar sessions in the UK, and to try to involve as many different groups as possible. 

Although our film SUFFRAGETTE does focus on a specific group of women, we know that the perspective is much wider. I hope that their story and their fight can still speak to our lives today. It is a local story, but with global relevance. 

This is the idea of the Twitter campaign "Inspiring Women ": finding women across the globe, through time and up to the present day, who have inspired and fought for women. Many of the most inspiring are women of colour. This campaign resonates with the film’s core message: the fight against inequality wherever, whenever. 

I hope that SUFFRAGETTE will, by provoking discussion, succeed in contributing to this fight. 

As a film-maker, I have worked in the past and will continue to campaign in the future for more diversity behind of and in front of the camera. That struggle continues: the more who join it, the better.

Suffragette is in UK cinemas 12th October

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