suffragette director sarah gavron on the challenges of getting a female film on screen

We talk women in cinema, protesters on the red carpet and that ‘slave’ t-shirt controversy with the woman behind the film that tells the story of how women got the right to vote.

by Colin Crummy
12 October 2015, 1:45pm

Suffragette tells the story of the early women's rights movement in Britain through the eyes of a working class East London laundry worker Maud Watts, who in early 20th early Britain turns activist in the face of oppression in all aspects of her life. The film, starring Carey Mulligan as Maud and featuring Meryl Streep as suffragette icon Emmeline Pankhurst, makes a powerful statement about inequality then and now, the end credits beginning with a roll call of which nations have granted women the vote and which have yet to embrace this basic equal right.

In the activist spirit of the film, Suffragette's release has prompted its own controversies. When the actors were photographed for Time Out London wearing 'I'd rather be a rebel than a slave' t-shirts, they were criticised for its connotations with American history. At the film's premiere in London last week, protesters from Sisters Uncut lay down on the red carpet to draw attention to domestic abuse and cuts to women's services. Below, Suffragette director Sarah Gavron talks about all of these plus the challenges of getting a political drama about women on the big screen.

Why was Suffragette a passion project for you?
It's an amazing story and one which has changed the course of our history. It felt extraordinary that it was one that hadn't been told on our cinema screens. The true story is not even widely known - there are versions of it with the iconic moments like Emily Wilding Davison and the horse, the Mary Poppins version of it - but people don't know the truth of it. These women went to such great lengths and lost so much in the process, went to prison, were force fed, were beaten up by the police, lost their families, jobs and homes. So it felt timely to resurrect these women and remember a part of our history that chimes with what's happening across the world today where we are still battling for equality, not just sexual equality, but equality across the board.

Why do you think this story hasn't been told by cinema before?
Women's history has been marginalised. When I said it to the academics who consulted on the film they weren't surprised [that it took so long to make a film] because it took ages to get this part of history into universities and It wasn't on the school curriculum. I didn't learn any of it. In terms of getting it onto the big screen, there are so few female teams out there and we were more likely to tell this story.

What were the specific challenges in getting this made?
One was finding the way into the story because it was such a long movement. It spanned 60+ years, involved thousands of women and there were many ways you could have gone with this story. We could have told the story of Emmeline Pankhurst, an exceptional woman but we were excited and engaged by telling the story of an ordinary woman with no platform or entitlement to activism, and what drove her.

Was there a difficulty in that the film was about women but didn't fit into a neat female led film like a rom com or a weepie?
Yes, I think so. We didn't want to make it something it didn't need to be. We felt it was strong as a political drama. It didn't need to be disguised as a romance or anything else. We stuck to our guns about that, it made it a harder proposition but I hope all the stronger for it.

The direction has a contemporary mood. Did you want to make it feel like - as it is - a subject very much alive today?
That's exactly it. We wanted to really root you in the situation and feel how women who lived and walked down those streets would have felt, to not distance you or prettify it in any way. There was something about having a hand held camera which kept it alive and energetic.

The scene in which Carey Mulligan's character, Maud Watts, is subjected to force-feeding in prison is one of the most powerful moments in the film…
We didn't want to shy away from what the women had gone through and the consequences of their actions. Force-feeding was one of the really shocking things that testimonies from the time describe, it'ss a form of torture. The fact that women were prepared to endure it, for example Emily Wilding Davison was force fed 49 times, was so telling of how desperate they all were and how the times were in terms of inequality.

How it is for women in cinema behind the camera?
The statistics are bad because there are so few women directing and behind the camera generally. It's a very male dominated world too, but I'm hopeful it's going to shift because it's part of the conversation. We know that women are 51 per cent of the population, that we buy more than half the cinema tickets, that there's an appetite for women's stories both from male and female audiences and it's exciting to have diversity behind the camera so that you reflect the culture you live in. I'm excited that it's a conversation point because it feels like there's a shift going on.

How did you feel about the 'I'd rather be a rebel than a slave' t-shirt controversy?
I understand, am aware and acknowledge completely that there are sensitivities in the States particularly about that and around race, but what I think is important is that it doesn't overshadow the intentions of this film which is to explore and prompt discussion about inequality wherever, whenever. It's set very specifically in East London in a specific year but I hope it has universal themes and prompts discourse across cultures, ages and genders.

There were also protesters on the red carpet at the film's premiere in London last week. How did you feel about it?
I thought that was kind of appropriate in a way. The film speaks to the fact that the battle isn't over. We've come a long way from the time of the Suffragettes, here in the UK at least. They [the red carpet protesters] were protesting about two ongoing issues, the under representation of women in Parliament and the cuts to domestic abuse services which affects women hugely. I think these were important issues and they were protesting in the spirit of the film.

How has your own experience of being a woman in film been?
I didn't dare put myself forward as a director until in my early twenties I saw the films of some pioneering women who paved the way for my generation, like Jane Campion, Claire Denis and Sally Potter. It was very exciting to see their work and see there was a possibility I could direct as a woman. I dared put myself forward to apply to train and then it was about surrounding myself with people who were supportive and had the same vision. You have to surround yourself with allies.

Suffragette is in cinemas from today


Text Colin Crummy

Carey Mulligan
Meryl Streep
Sarah Gavron