Meet the women behind the film “Suffragette”

November 5th, 2015

The Carroll News participated in an interview with director, Sarah Gavron; screenwriter, Abi Morgan; producers, Alison Owen and Faye Ward; and the great granddaughter of Meryl Streep’s character, Helen Pankurst from the film “Suffragette.” The Focus Feature film, starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter and Meryl Streep, depicts the British women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and 20th century in the United Kingdom.


Q: How did your college and individual experiences with suffragettes and your education inform you and interest you in the suffragette movement?


Sarah Gavron

Sarah Gavron: I didn’t learn about it at all in school, which seems kind of amazing to me that it was such a key slice of history, but women’s history was really marginalized when I was growing up. I am 45 so I was a teenager in the 80’s, and it was only later when I started learning about it and I wished I had explored more of it at the university. I studied in English at York University and went on to post graduate in filmmaking and then went to national film television school. My whole education did allow me to learn about research and I have really used that in my filmmaking life, delving into stories and going into archives. Part of the process of making this film was really uncovering all sorts of unpublished memoirs and documents that told of the experiences of working women, which was the focus of the film.


Abi Morgan: I studied English and Drama at the university and for me, that’s where I started writing. Like Sarah, I hadn’t known much about the suffragette movement. One of the things I do remember clearly was the start of my engagement with feminism, which related to the suffragette movement because I started to look at the place we were working on and there seemed to be all men. Recently, what one of our leading male theater critics highlighted as one of a hundred best plays, only six of them were women. This made me start to hunger to hear women’s voices and that made me go back and look at great women historical characters.


Alison Owen: I actually knew quite a lot about the suffragette movement, especially through a BBC series called “Shoulder to Shoulder” that I watched when I was about 11 or 12 and it had really affected me. There were some pretty graphic stuff of the force feeding that was in there that had really stayed with me, and I also did learn about it in school. I was irritated that the suffragette movement was kind of reduced to a slightly cartoonish, very upper class version in people’s perceptions, represented by Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins, the sort of sister suffragette with a sash and being a bit silly and talking in a high-posh voice and that these legions of women who were very working class, very poor who had given up an enormous amount and whose shoulders we stand on today had been almost entirely forgotten. The desire to make the film really came from that, to honor these women.


Faye Ward: To repeat what everyone else said, I didn’t learn about it in school at all. They were mentioned very briefly in a sort of throw away sentence and as Allison said, you are already taught about the upper class women, ladies in hats. What was interesting about the process and how we all embarked on wanting to make the film, the deeper, as Sarah says, the deeper we got into the research, the more relevant it all started to really become in today’s society about what this story is and how this story can travel.


Helen Pankurst: I was very aware of the name and people asked me about the surname so I was interested in that way, in terms of education, I went to French school in Ethiopia and it wasn’t covered.


Q: Emmeline Pankerst’s famous quote “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” went viral and there was a lot of flotsam and jetsam over the internet about this. Comments?”


SG: If Emmeline knew that her words would be interpreted the way it is now, she’d be shocked. One of the first conscious efforts, social consciousness-raising elements that she remembers as a young child was her father was an abolitionist and she was involved in that campaign. So she’d be horrified to think that her words were taken out of context.


AM: I think it is a matter of historical perspective rather than anything else. Those words were said in a very particular time. They are understood in a very different way in England and I think that we welcome the discourse on the subject to have and it would be a terrible shame if it skewed the narrative from what we’re trying to do which is raise everyone’s consciousness and awareness for all women.


AO: I think what it does allow us to do is look at the differences between the British and the American suffragette movement. Our film was set within 2 and a half mile radius of London. We did have some immigration but most of the big waves of immigration were after the first and second…we didn’t have the rich and diverse Britain that we have today. To reiterate, we are acutely aware of that subject and it’s the discourse that I think is really important and we have to keep having it, so I wouldn’t want to dilute it. Equally, it would be unfortunate if it became the narrative because I think you can sincerely see the intention of the film, which is about promoting global equality for all women across the world.


FW: Another thing that was interesting about looking at the differences, because we interrogated the photographic and written evidence of the British suffragette movement. When we embarked on this project, we looked at the diversity of women very closely. We were looking at the working women. There’s one photograph of a group of contingent women from India in the 1911 Peaceful Coronation procession, which is before we start our story and those women from India. In India, women were fighting for women’s rights and to free India, so that was going on. We reflected the historical picture of the United Kingdom at the time. As Abby said, we want to message and I am for promoting diversity behind the camera and am passionate about it. Not just sexual diversity, not just women and men because over 90% of films each year are directed by white, straight, educated men. And we have to change that. We have to get people of all parts of society to tell stories because that reflects the culture we live in and I want to campaign and am campaigning for that.


Q: This rare mainstream feature film was written, produced and directed entirely by women. What’s also rare is for the same team to have been together for part of the decade working on this film. Could you tell about this process and how you worked on other projects at the same time?


AM: I have to say that genuinely what was wonderful about Sarah was her continued passion and focus and I think was absolutely the core of why this film was made. She pushed it forth the whole time. We all live and work in quite a small area of north London so we were able to keep connected and we kept on talking. And if I look back on the amount of drafts I did on this project, you normally get paid per draft, and I believed in this project so much that I just kept on writing and writing and writing. We kept writing even when we were shooting. You certainly didn’t get paid per draft but this was not a project about money. This has never been a project in a Hollywood sense of the word, you know, take a big bang for your buck. It’s not that. It has been a real passion project for us all and I think it’s the combination of producers who really believed in it from my point of view and a director who really believed in it and really walked the walk with me. The collaboration was such a fun, enjoyable, intense, important experience as a writer that it was incredibly affirming about the film industry in general and how the process can work to create good work.


SG: Yes, I agree. I think all having done a film together before was really important. We had a certain dynamic, a certain shorthand and we knew we all got on and that made it much easier to embark on a project that we knew was going to be difficult when we started it. We knew it would be hard to raise the money to make the film that we wanted to make but we knew we were on a journey and we knew our fellow travelers.


Q: Helen, was there a trust, in your part, in that all these years you were always hearing from the same people that there was no turning over that you were always going to be dealing with the same people throughout?


HP: I fell in love with this film from the script. I saw the script and I just thought, you know, we are focusing on the issues. It’s not about little personalities. It’s not about schisms within the movement. It’s really to get people to understand how somebody changes with the transition and I just thought that was spot on. Every interaction I’ve had with the team ever since has been really impressive. Just in terms of how dedicated to the issues and also the small ways in which I think the team has operated are symbolic of just a lovely approach.


Q: What do you think the value is of making a film that looks into the past, and looking backward instead of making a film about the contemporary feminist movement?


SG: I think that by looking at something very specific and particularly where you can draw universal truths, I mean, there were two reasons to tell this story. One was to remember how hard the vote was and how far we’ve come and the debt we owe to these women who started to change the course of history. One of the things that really struck me on making it, because I was part of a generation also that became complacent about the vote and was surrounded by quite a lot of apathy, is that when they got the vote, the women partially in 1918 and then fully in 1928, there was a slew of legislation that came through the changed women’s live. For the first time they got proper parental rights, they could sit on juries, they could become solicitors, and all sorts of respects. You realize that the vote is symbolic, but you have to be represented, you have to be counted and that’s a reminder how governments will only take care of people when their represented, when they make their voices heard. That was one reason. The other was that it chimed with all sorts of issues today. I think it’s quite useful as a way of just connecting through the specific details of the past, connecting with today. Realizing it touches on police surveillance and why people turn to activism when they’re treated unequally. So many issues that are relevant.


Q: What kind of preparation did you guys do to make the film authentic to the early 1900’s in the United Kingdom?


FW: We consulted with many historians across the board. We went into the British library, we went into the women’s library, and we basically immersed ourselves in as much information as possible. We contacted anybody who had any connections with the families to get their stories and to hear behind the scenes about what happened and we also went on quite a journey to try to find diaries, particularly for the ordinary woman, which as you can imagine at the time, not many of them were educated and not many of them would write things down and we found a couple of really great diaries. And that was a large part of our process and then, in turn, once we found the research and the historical accuracy, we then tried to find our journey through the story into making the story as relevant as possible. And finding the locations and going to the real places. We are very lucky in London that the 1900’s are there still in some respects, but actually trying to recreate what was there was quite a feat. We were the first movie ever to shoot in the House of Parliament and that was an amazing experience. What this movie has done from the very beginning and through the process, you feel how important and we knew when we started the movie how important, and became more important as we grew. Shooting in the House of Parliament was one of those moments where you felt like the government was acknowledging this moment in history that not many people would know.”


Q: How much footage was archived that you were able to sort through to make the film?


FW: We had an archive specialist, James Hunt, who was brilliant. He scoured all the archives that we’ve got in the UK and actually abroad. The one thing we did do was, there were quite a lot of reels that have never been exposed and had never been developed. There was one in particular that was labeled, “Emily’s Funeral” and most of those reel were empty. We were so lucky because it was quite costly at the time. Nobody in the archive teams that we found had ever seen it before. I also felt like it was a real finality to our film, in that way, that really felt like it connects again back to that thing about connecting the past to the present. Weirdly enough, seeing the past in really raw terms felt very present.