While John Grierson is routinely referred to as the father of British documentary and even credited with coining the term ‘documentary’, from the outset there were pivotal female influences on the genre, including Grierson’s sisters Ruby and Marion, whose contributions have been largely overlooked.

Adventurous women had been involved in filmmaking since its earliest days, often recording their intrepid travels. For instance, Mrs Aubrey Le Blond, born Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed, documented snow sports in Alpine regions in 1900 – making her the first mountain filmmaker and one of the earliest female filmmakers – and Rosita Forbes and Stella Courtt-Treat recorded their expeditions, to the Middle East and Africa respectively, in the 1920s.

Another remarkable pioneer was Mary Field. Her first films as a director were released in 1927 and she went on to become one of Britain’s most prolific filmmakers – yet she is still scarcely known. She produced and directed several hundred natural history and educational films, and was instrumental in establishing Britain’s reputation as a world leader in the realm of natural history filmmaking, which has been maintained to this day.

While some of the women who worked in the documentary movement across the 1930s and 1940s achieved a degree of recognition at the time, such as Evelyn Spice, most were little known beyond their immediate industry circle. Some rose above the parapet and demanded their voices be heard. John Grierson later spoke about how his sister Ruby challenged him and his approach to filmmaking: “The trouble with you is that you look at things as though they were in a goldfish bowl. I’m going to break your goldfish bowl.”

Housing Problems (1935)

Ruby Grierson went ahead and smashed the glass, starting with her key – and uncredited – work on the landmark documentary Housing Problems (1935), one of the first films to allow the ordinary people who appear in documentaries to speak to camera, as opposed to the customary voice-of-God commentary speaking on their behalf. She told them: “The camera is yours. The microphone is yours. Now tell the bastards exactly what it’s like to live in slums.”

She made about 10 films, including They Also Serve (1940), which highlighted the key role played by housewives in the war effort. Her career was cut short by her death in 1940 while making a film about the evacuation of children to Canada, when the ship that she and the evacuees were sailing on was torpedoed.

Her younger sister, Marion Grierson, began working as a film editor with the encouragement of her brother, and rapidly became an accomplished filmmaker, though always modest. She applied an inventive array of techniques to stylish effect, notably in the wittily observed film Beside the Seaside in 1935. Remarkably, this film was made the year before the widely admired Night Mail (1936), which likewise boasts a lyrical narration written by poet W.H. Auden.

Jill Craigie (right)

As well as being largely overlooked in the annals of film history, another factor that determined the inconspicuousness of the work of women was the skimpiness of film credits at the time. While the two credited – both male – directors of Night Mail (1936) argued about their respective credits, Marion Grierson contributed uncredited shots to the film. She remained constant in her belief in filmmaking as a collaborative process throughout her time with the British Documentary Movement, later saying: “We could all cope with camera work, editing, writing scripts. We could do all the jobs really… and nobody jibbed at doing it… We all discussed each other’s films and in fact loaned each other material from the films… Night Mail, for example has pieces from everybody’s films… I have two shots in it of my Edinburgh film.”

More unexpectedly, women were sometimes erroneously credited by reviewers and archivists even when they did appear in the original onscreen credits. In one comparatively high-profile film that Marion Grierson directed, Heart of an Empire (1935), her assistant (as credited on the film), Alex Shaw, was promoted to director in contemporary film journals’ reviews of the film, including Sight and Sound, Monthly Film Bulletin and Film Dope. This error has been replicated in every source I’ve seen – fortunately, at least I have been able to amend the BFI National Archive’s Collections Information Database to redress the balance in this particular case.

Another practitioner who is surprisingly little known is the versatile and prolific filmmaker Sarah Erulkar, who was Indian-born and Jewish, and, remarkably, became the first person of colour to have a career as a film director in the UK. She started her career at the prestigious Shell Film Unit in 1947, where she had a meteoric rise as a result of her evident talent. One of the first films she directed, Lord Siva Danced (1948), is focused on Indian classical dance and is much loved in India, where it is reportedly held in similar regard to Night Mail in the UK. It is preserved in the BFI National Archive.

Sarah Erulkar
© BFI National Archive

Despite her early success, Erulkar soon came face to face with the career perils associated with being female when she married fellow filmmaker Peter de Normanville. Despite him working in a less senior role, Shell followed standard practice at the time and Erulkar was expected to resign upon marriage (the marriage bar was not made illegal until the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975). She later recalled: “That was my main problem: being a woman, more than being Indian.” The enforced termination of her promising career at Shell was a major blow but she was determined to remain a filmmaker and succeeded in working as a freelancer for the rest of her 40-year career. She made about 80 films in total, including the highly inventive Something Nice to Eat (1967), which features Jean Shrimpton and celebrates the culinary arts. It encapsulates the psychedelic spirit of the 1960s.

The film industry has never been a straightforward career choice and women have faced a particular array of obstacles in the documentary film business. The impact of marriage on women’s working lives across the industry (and beyond) was widespread. Jill Craigie stepped back from her own filmmaking work to support her husband Michael Foot’s political ambitions. Marion Grierson also stopped filmmaking upon marriage to fellow documentary director Donald Taylor. The birth of children was – and remains – an additional challenge to sustaining a career in any field. Filmmaking often involves unsociable hours, in addition to the ongoing social pressures on women to be primary carers of their children. Sarah Erulkar was unusual in bucking this trend, later recounting how her husband told her: “I married a director and I’m going to stay married to a director.” The couple found solutions to the added challenges of parenthood – usually involving an au pair – that enabled them both to continue working.

Budge Cooper was one of the women employed by the prolific National Coal Board Film Unit, (which made several hundred films) and, as she discovered, extra determination was often required on the part of women if they were to survive in such a male-dominated working environment. Cooper amply demonstrated her resolve by taking the NCB to court when they refused to allow her to go underground to film because of her gender – and she won.

Kay Mander

The postwar decades saw many films produced or sponsored by the state, private industry and other institutions, including the Central Office of Information, British Transport Films and the Shell Film Unit. Some of the women already mentioned – and others, including Kay Mander – made films for these organisations in often challenging circumstances. Mander was told by studio boss Michael Balcon that women were unable to control film crews – even though she had already done precisely that, and well enough to have won a British Academy Film Award. Mander went on to direct around 50 instructional and promotional films, although she later returned to continuity work on feature films. “I palpably had the skills,” she said, but couldn’t face “battling” to continue directing.

In the 1970s and 1980s, groups of women around the UK set up film and video workshops, such as Sheffield Film Co-op, whose films include Jobs for the Girls (1978) and Women of Steel (1984), and the London Women’s Film Group, which made The Amazing Equal Pay Show (1974). These groups usually worked as cooperatives, outside the sponsored sphere – and were therefore free to focus on more political issues that affected their lives.

The number of female documentary filmmakers has steadily increased over the past two decades in line with a growing appetite for documentary in all its forms. Key names include Kim Longinotto, Penny Woolcock, Molly Dineen, Sophie Fiennes, Rubika Shah, Franny Armstrong, Jeanie Finlay and Vanessa Engle. Unlike some of their male counterparts, such as Nick Broomfield or Louis Theroux, they rarely appear in front of the camera, but behind the lens they are a collective force to be reckoned with. Such are their achievements that most leading documentarians in Britain today are women. Their forebears broke the goldfish bowl, while they are breaking the glass ceiling.

The Camera Is Ours: Britain’s Women Documentary Makers runs at BFI Southbank in March 2022.

A collection of shorts and features will soon be available on BFI Player.

This article by BFI National Archive curator Ros Cranston is included in the booklet for The Camera Is Ours: Britain’s Women Documentary Makers (two-disc DVD), released in March. It’s based on an article originally written for the Open University course ‘A Story of Documentary Film’. With thanks to the OU for its agreement in reproducing this essay.