New research project launched to transform understanding of women’s creative contributions to the history of British filmmaking

The lost legacy of women who’ve worked in the British film industry since the dawn of sound in the cinema is to be 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.

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.

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

“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 in Exeter’s Department of Communications, Drama and Film. “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 Professor Linda Ruth Williams, Professor of Film in the Department of Communications Drama and Film at Exeter; Professor Shelley Cobb (University of Southampton), 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, who is the project’s Specialist Curatorial Advisor.

The researchers will work in the BFI’s National Archive’s Special Collections Department at the Conservation Centre in Berkhamsted and at The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at The University of Exeter, the leading moving image museum in the UK. The project explores how gender, race and ethnicity influences the ways that film-related collections are catalogued, described, archived and curated. As part of that process, they will investigate how women’s work in a range of filmmaking roles are archived and will look at how the issue of ‘status’ might define whether the work of a female film-maker is regarded as ‘collectable’. They will innovate new archival practices and create equitable approaches relevant for the archival sector more widely.

Continuity Supervisor Pamela Davies working with Michael Powell. Photo taken from the Pamela Davies Collection, held at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.

The team will interview prominent female directors, and will 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 specific focus on making women’s screen work visible through curation and exhibition, culminating in a major exhibition and new book toward the end of the four-year 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.”

Among a host of regional, national and international organisations who will be involved with the project include the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles, USA; the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison USA; Hampshire County Council’s Wessex Film and Sound Archive, Winchester; Taliesin Create, Swansea and Studio 74 Cinema at the Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum