Celebrating Female Pioneers of Animation

Give us a smile

Give us a smile

This was a sort of trailer for the Bradford Animation Festival which commenced on November 17th. Organised by Jen Skinner as part of ‘Film Extra’ at the National Media Museum, this was educational afternoon that included both short films and talks and discussion on a somewhat neglected area. But as both speakers pointed out, the animation sector is rather like the commercial film industry generally – women, like an iceberg, mainly hidden beneath the surface except when they are objects of audience gaze.

In the first session Terry Wragg talked about the work of Leeds Animation Workshop – a Feminist independent autonomous collective. Based in a Harehills Terrace house the Workshop has turned out about forty films since it opened in the 1970s. It started out around the issue of ‘free 24 hour child care’. The collective were involved with and committed to the radical agenda of the feminist moment at this time.

The Workshop was properly constituted in 1978. Their first animated film was Pretend You’re Survive’, a campaigning film about the Nuclear Threat. The film combined careful research with an ironic stance but also moments with ominous portents. The film was screened at the London Film Festival in 1981. Terry remembered that they were the only women directors in a slate of animated films from all round the world.

They were then able to obtain some funding from the British Film Institute, though only after Verity Lambert put in a word to the funding section. This produced Give Us a Smile! (1983, 13 minutes), an agit-prop film combating violence against women. The first part of the film satirised the treatment of victims of rape and domestic violence by the police and legal establishment. The quotations were all carefully researched. It was quite a task to remember just how reactionary were the views in circulation at this time. The second part of the film was dedicated to ‘Fight Back’. This had some very effective inversions of the stereotypes seen earlier in the film.

Terry recalled that the film was made at the time that the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising the area. Women had to suffer not just that threat, but misguided attempts at ‘protection’, like ‘women only curfews’.

Terry also recalled that over the decade following the setting up of the collective the general culture and discourse changed, including legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act. They produced further films but failed to get fresh BFI funding for projects. However, they did get BBC Continuing Education funding for a film on equal opportunities. The BBC involvement led to focus on the ‘glass ceiling’, the idea that there is a point in any hierarchy above which women rarely rise.

Because then film was aimed at employers, still predominately male, the film had a male voice over. It also used the plots of fairy tales to produce a narrative exemplifying the discrimination and ways to break it. I found this the least radical of the three films we watched. The fairy take formula seemed rather tame compared with the more confrontational style of the other two films. However, I think it also stems from the subject. Terry suggested that the ‘ceiling’ affects all women, even those at the bottom. This is only marginally true, if at all. Significantly there seemed to be only one working class woman in the film, whilst the ‘heroine’ was a princess.

It was rewarding session. Terry has a very accessible style and the films do stand up and out. It struck me that the Workshop has a lower profile these days than in earlier years. I can remember screenings at the Leeds International Film Festival, but I think all of them were some while ago.

The second session had Nicola Dobson from Glasgow talking about the women collaborators of the famous animator, Norman McLaren. [It is his centenary this year]. Nicola has been researching the correspondence of McLaren at Stirling University and has also looked at material on the three women. The first was Helen Biggar, who was a student at the Glasgow Art School at the same time as McLaren. Both were involved in radical politics and close to the Communist Part of Great Britain. They collaborated on a short, black and white anti-war animation – Hell Unltd (1936). Helen showed us copies of their letters, which included diagrams for the film.

After Glasgow McLaren worked for the GPO Film Unit and filmed in Spain during the Republican Defence against Spanish fascism. This was an experience that led to him moving to New York Here he worked on a commission for Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer in US animation. This resulted in a seven minute animated and abstract film, Spook Sport. McLaren was not completely happy with the final result but it was an important stage in his development.

In 1942 McLaren joined the National Film Board of Canada. Here he worked with Evelyn Lambert, first his assistant and then his co-director. Over 20 years they worked on a variety of animated films and created important development in animation techniques and form. They won a number of awards including one at the Hollywood Academy.

Helen titled her presentation with the words ‘Behind every great man …’, and behind the title displayed a photograph of Evelyn standing behind Norman at an Award Ceremony – I think the Oscars. She argued convincingly, especially from the correspondence with all three women, that they acted mentors to McLaren. McLaren was gay and I was struck when Helen also told us that he wrote home to his mother from Canada every week. Though the important aspect is the quality and influence of his work with these collaborators. The talk was fairly compressed, covering the three women animators in one session. And unfortunately some of the material was displayed in 16: 9 rather than 1.37: – I think that was because they were screening from a laptop.

Hell Unlimited

Hell Unlimited

To cap the session we had a screening of Hell Unltd on a 16mm print from the bfi, [it looked like the same print that the Museum screened over ten years ago]. It was in pretty good shape, in black and white, at 1.33:1 and silent. It runs at 18 fps and the borrowed machine had a break-down shortly into the film, which fortunately was quickly fixed.

The film starts with illustrated statistics about the state and the armament industry: there are graphic illustrations of warfare: and the film ends with a challenge the audience to action. The film is clearly influence by the Communist Party line of the 1930s, [much superior to later versions]. It also shows the influence of the anti-war discourse including the Peace Pledge campaign. It is unfortunate that it is not easy to see in its original format.

I missed the following displays in the Museum Insight collection and final discussion: [back to LIFF in Leeds]. But I found it a really interesting and stimulating afternoon. The audience was a little sparse for such an opportunity. Partly I think because the details were quite hard to find on the Museum WebPages – not a new problem at this institution. This is rather sad as the Museum appears to be closing down Film Extra and most of the Film Department. This follows the ‘outsourcing’ of the cinemas to the Picturehouse chain. How much that will change the film programming remains to be seen. But the film festivals and the Film Education work seemed to have passed on. I think the whole exercise is misguided. As a long-time user of the Museum’s film provision I don’t think the problems were down to the Film Department. I think they are much more to do with management and how the other part of the Museum related to film. The National Science Museum, who are overall in charge, do not display a great commitment to cinema and they don’t appear to integrate their different Museums very effectively. Whilst some people talk about the ‘death of cinema’, such obituaries remain somewhat premature. And film remains the most potent expression of popular culture from the 20th century.

I hope the redundant Museum staff get the same opportunity as the now departed programme manager Tom Vincent: he has moved to Australia to the Perth Film Festival. When I met his future professional colleagues at festivals I was always impressed with them.

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One comment

  1. Roy Stafford

    Excellent write-up Keith. I support all your statements here. The car crash that is the NMeM at the moment is symptomatic of trying to manage from 200 miles away and having no feel for film culture – or not really for culture at all. My thoughts are with colleagues who have been made redundant, those who felt forced to leave and those who will probably find themselves under pressure in future. Bradford is an important city in film history so the onus is on us all now to do something to rescue its status. People tend to forget that the Museum had taken on the legacy of the old Bradford Film Theatre with its history going back to the 1930s. That’s where film education began in the early 1990s – and where we once screened Hell Unlimited as I’m sure you remember.

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