Project to understand women’s creative contributions to British filmmaking is launched

Continuity Supervisor Pamela Davies with filmmaker Michael Powell. The Bill Doug
Continuity Supervisor Pamela Davies with filmmaker Michael Powell. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.

The lost legacy of women who’ve worked in the British film industry since the dawn of sound in cinema is the focus of a new national research project.

Women’s Screen Work in the Archives Made Visible will seek to address the often-hidden histories of women in filmmaking, including those working in screenwriting or technical roles, or whose achievements have been subsumed by the directors and producers they worked for.

The research is led by the University of Exeter in partnership with the University of Southampton, Swansea University, the BFI (British Film Institute), and The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the value of the four-year project is £1.49m. It will bring together archivists, curators, film directors and scholars to develop ways to make women’s work in film more discoverable and visible, whether in museums or archives.

Professor Shelley Cobb , Head of Film Studies at the University of Southampton, will work as part of the project, interviewing filmmakers and archivists, as well as linking with the Wessex Film and Sound Archive in Winchester.

Professor Cobb says: "I’m looking forward to hearing from filmmakers about their experience of depositing items in archives and from the archivists themselves about the process of developing feminist archival practices. We hope to shine new light on the role of women in film over the past decades - establishing new ways of evidencing this and documenting future contributions."

"Thousands of women have contributed to shaping British filmmaking and its vibrant history over the past century," says Professor Helen Hanson, Project Lead and Associate Professor in Film History at the University of Exeter. "Their creative contributions, however, are largely absent from public knowledge of that history, because evidence documenting their work is often buried and invisible in major film-related archives and museums."

Alongside Professor Hanson, the project Co-Leads are Southampton’s Professor Shelley Cobb; Professor Linda Ruth Williams, University of Exeter; Dr Lisa Smithstead, University of Swansea; Wendy Russell, Special Collections Archivist at the BFI’s National Archives Special Collections; and Dr Phil Wickham, Curator of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter.

The researchers will primarily work in the BFI’s National Archive’s Special Collections Department at the Conservation Centre in Berkhamsted and at The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.

The project explores how gender, race and ethnicity influences the ways that film-related collections are catalogued, described, archived and curated. It will investigate how women’s work in a range of filmmaking roles are archived and look at how the issue of ’status’ might define whether the work of a female film-maker is regarded as ’collectable’.

The team will interview prominent female directors, and build case studies around collections of Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Blinded By The Light) and Tina Gharavi (I Am Nasrine), examining of the rich production materials relating to their screen work, including details of projects that were never realised, as well as scripts, storyboards, notes, photographs and publicity materials, preserved and cared for by the Special Collections team at the BFI National Archive.

"The BFI is delighted to be part of this important and timely project to highlight the vital contribution women have made to the history of British cinema," says Wendy Russell. "The opening up of women’s success stories, as well as the barriers they may have faced in the film industry both above and below the line is long overdue and will enhance our understanding and knowledge of the BFI National Archive’s Special Collections. We are immensely grateful to Tina Gharavi and Gurinder Chadha for the generous donation of their personal archives, which will play a key part in this project."

There will also be a specific focus on making women’s screen work visible, culminating in a major exhibition and new book towards the end of the project.

"Film history has traditionally been written around male directorial figures and influenced by the auteur theory," says Professor Williams. "But filmmaking is a collaborative process, shaped by highly specialised artists, technicians and practitioners working in sound, set design, scripting and so many other disciplines. Many of these stories - which are more often than we might think women’s stories - can now only be found in the margins of history, So, what we hope to achieve through this collaborative project is to find new ways to archive and exhibit the role of women in film and change how we think about the histories of women in film around the world."