What pushed the Suffragettes to break every taboo?

Bridget Galton hears why it took 10 years to make a new film about the Suffragette movement.

Feminism was in the air at The Star last Thursday as a largely female audience gathered to hear about the forthcoming film Suffragette.

But even before the packed pub in Chester Road became fired up by the radical women who fought for the vote a century ago, they were agitated by the more contemporary issue of inequality in the movie industry.

As host of the latest Dartmouth Park Talk, the actress and filmmaker Kate Hardie decried the statistics as “terrible”.

“Nine per cent of directors, 10 per cent of writers and three per cent of cinematographers are women. Considering we are going to talk about inspiring women doing radical things years ago, we still have a long way to go.”

Hardie, who grew up in Hampstead and holds a series on women in film at the ArtHouse Crouch End, added: “The film industry is behind banking and the army in gender inequality. The massive problem is it thinks it’s liberal: ‘I make art, I am a good person’ can make you blind to examining yourself.”

With a female producer, writer, and stars, Suffragette bucks this trend, pointed out its BAFTA-winning director Sarah Gavron.

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The former Camden School for Girls pupil said she couldn’t have made Sufragette without cinematographer husband David Katznelson.

“I tell my kids it’s like being away at sea when I am making a film,” said the 44-year-old.

“Those here who are Brookfield parents will know I wasn’t at the school gates much. David took over. I couldn’t have done it without him. He understands it takes a lot to make a film – you pour your heart and soul into it.”

Penned by Iron Lady writer Abi Morgan, Suffragette stars Carey Mulligan as working class laundress Maud who is inspired by Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst and Helena Bonham Carter’s radical Edith to join the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Gavron had wanted to make the film for a decade, but said it took a groundswell of grassroots feminism and cultural sea-change to get the project made.

“It seemed extraordinary that no-one had told this story on the screen. No-one was interested three or four years ago, we wouldn’t have got it financed, but in the last few years, something shifted. Women are challenging repression all over the world.”

Criticised for focusing on a minority militant wing who arguably set back their cause by breaking windows, committing arson, going on hunger strike and blowing up pillar boxes, Gavron sees things differently; as a story with wider resonances of how governments deal with political protest, that she hopes “if nothing else will remind especially young people why they should vote.”

“I felt no-one knew this story of women who turned to militancy – the extremes they went to, what they faced. What pushed them to that point where they broke every taboo? We couldn’t believe what they had done. There’s a Mary Poppins view of the suffragettes and we had to show the whole picture rather than shy away.”

Gavron’s film certainly doesn’t do that, depicting the hunger-striking women being force fed, which itself has resonances of other political struggles.

“We are not condoning civil disobedience but exploring it. You shouldn’t look at them as heroes, they were flawed, there were problems with it as a route, but all political movements happen at different levels. Running alongside the civil unrest was a political campaign. There’s no one thing that makes the definitive difference. Historians have conflicting opinions on what achieved the vote.”

Gavron sighs that while she understands that people want the definitive story of this big historic movement, “it’s just one story of many that should be heard”.

Recent National Archives records revealed police used the latest photographic technology to carry out surveillance on the Suffragettes, and both this and the extent to which they suffered from press manipulation feature in the film.“We were drawn to tell our grandmothers’ story but also a story that’s relevant today. Surveillance, civil unrest, police brutality, manipulating images, there was so much that echoed.”

Suffragette was famously the first movie shot in the Palace of Westminster. After a tenacious location manager persuaded the authorities to agree, Gavron re-created the ‘Black Friday’ protest at which police acting on Government orders attacked the women, resulting in two deaths.

Press pictures of unarmed women being assaulted was a public relations disaster, realised Home Secretary Winston Churchill, who ordered copies of the Daily Mirror off the news stand.

“I was most nervous of those action sequences,” admits Gavron.

“Up to then, I had only done three people in a room. Suddenly we were re-staging the Derby and riots.

“We were lucky that we asked to film just as they were interested in doing commercial filming. Then we said we wanted to bring 300 extras, horses and sound men through security and stage an anti-Government riot!”

Rather than a more obvious biopic of the Pankhursts – “the extraordinary story of exceptional women” – Morgan and Gavron wanted to feature an ordinary working woman who goes on an extraordinary journey.

“This movement brought together women from all classes: aristocrats and laundry workers. I thought, ‘Let’s bring these woman out of the shadows’.”

Contemporary diaries and accounts revealed the issues they faced, of child custody, pay inequality and domestic abuse resonated today, Gavron says.

“Maud was a composite of three working women. Everything that happened to her happened to one of them. Historical fiction can be a way of telling more truthful stories than you otherwise could. Cinema can make the audience connect with a human story, put you in the shoes of a woman and take you on her emotional journey.”

Gavron admits there was pressure from execs “to get a cast that would draw an audience,” but had always wanted Mulligan for the lead.

“We’d thought about her for six years. Maud’s is a huge, heart-breaking journey; she’s got to be very watchable and Carey has that ability to inhabit someone and betray tiny shifts of character.”

It was Mulligan’s mother’s idea to cast Meryl Streep, who is on screen for just four minutes.

“I thought ‘do I dare? This iconic, charismatic character who lights up these women’s lives played by an icon? It’s rare to see so many women in scenes together – Brendan Gleeson said he’d never been on such an oestrogen-filled set – but there was a great sense of camaraderie; the biggest problem was they spent so much time laughing.”

Both the subject matter and Streep’s presence had a galvanising effect upon Gavron, who admits she struggled in her 20s with a lack of female role models.

“It’s a case of ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. I remember having ideas for short films, but I didn’t tell anyone I wanted to direct them. Then I saw the films of Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow and started to think I could.”

She adds: “Pankhurst said, ‘You have to be fearless’ and it was emboldening to think what these women had done. It allowed me as a woman film maker to think I was allowed to make a film about how you can change your destiny and speak out.

“Perhaps I was also under the influence of Meryl Streep who is pretty radical, a great advocate for women’s rights, who has lobbied congress and donates her fees to feminist causes.”

Gavron agrees with Hardie that cinema is “art meets business”, a hierarchichal industry that throws up barriers to putting women in charge of big budgets and male crews.

“Women have become clamorous they are talking about it, there is a real sea change. When choosing material I follow my gut and respond to it emotionally. It has always been stories about women and probably will continue to be.

“We need these stories. Film reflects our culture and we need diversity behind the camera.”

Suffragette opens the London Film Festival on October 7 and is on general release from October 12.