Posted Tuesday 22 Dec 2015
It took producer Faye Ward over five years of brainstorming and campaigning to produce Suffragette, the narrative feature about women's struggle for the right to vote in Britain a century ago. The film, opening on Boxing Day at a time when feminism in filmmaking is trending and Hollywood's male-dominated film industry hierarchy is under investigation for sexual bias and harassment of woman, has a compelling contemporary resonance.
Directed by Sarah Gavron, scripted by Abi Morgan and starring Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts and Helena Bonham Carter as Edith Ellyn, two working class women who lay their lives on the line for women's rights, and Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffrage movement, the film presents a well-researched and beautifully realized depiction of British women's struggles - often with violent confrontations and inhumane punishments - to win the right to vote.
Equally impressive, it represents a superb and stirring achievement by a team of British women filmmakers who have realized how to make the most of making movies together.
According to producers Alison Owen and Faye Ward, they headed a powerful team of creative and dedicated women (and, to be fair, a fair number of men) who brought a combination of trust in partnership and a passion for the subject that brought Suffragette to fruition.
In Christmas week, Faye Ward took some time out of her frantic schedule to talk to WIFT NZ E-News editor Josie McNaught about her passion for film and TV, along with the career journey that shot her work into the international spotlight, and her latest project Suffragette.
WIFT: The women's suffrage movement is an old story in many ways -and it's been told so many times - why did you think it needed revisiting? What did you think you could add?
FW: I think most people's memory is the mother in Mary Poppins - very jovial and full of laughter. No one told the really important story about suffrage as a militant political movement. We felt no one knew and people really needed to know. The highest amount of non-voters are 18-25 year-old women. So they are not engaging in voting or politics. But we didn't realise how important the story was until it evolved and we were looking in the police archives in Kew and recognized how significant it is to today. The police had direct contact with suffragettes via surveillance, using early photo long lenses. Obviously surveillance is such a big part of our lives now and suddenly the suffragette story felt like it was more relevant to today. It did take a long time to get from an idea to the screen, but now on reflection, I think it's better that it didn't happen because I don't think the story would have landed in the right spot. Everyone is ready for this conversation now, because everyone should be engaged in politics - you can't not vote and then be disgruntled. I've also found that so many men and women and cultures have seen the film and expressed a personal reaction, or related it to Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks.
For many people the suffragette movement is a fiction, and many people are dumbfounded that it happened so recently. I hope it will get people to engage in politics and vote. These women did this for them to vote. Young people don't correlate voting with politics and changing things or equality. Along the journey of making this film I met Geena Davis and we discussed how so much we see on screen, the roles are fictional but correlate with the actual world. You see it so you want to be it. Since CSI has been on television 500 percent more people have applied to be forensic police scientists.
But in blockbusters only 17 percent of the roles are for women. I don't know if it's life imitating art or what, it's hard to know, but there is definitely a correlation. If I see that person on screen, I can be that person. They become admired. The voiceless are gaining a voice. So people can be inspired and tell their stories on and off screen.
WIFT: The Pankhursts were deliberately kept in the background - quite a contrast to " Shoulder to Shoulder" which we all grew up on here in New Zealand - their name are synonymous with the movement but they took a back seat here - why?
FW: The first draft was a fantastic story Alice Horton, the MP's wife in the film. It was based on her and she had a maid called Maud (who becomes the Carey Mulligan character) We felt that what we could do was give it to as big an audience as possible - surprise people and break people's opinions about the suffragette movement by finding the ordinary woman. The whole process was about breaking down the barriers to get to younger and bigger audiences.
When you are showing a movie about ordinary women in a certain time, the costumes and production design have to be accurate but sometimes the period nature is the character. We wanted it to be real and show how these women really really lived because we felt that would connect the audience. So we had to project Maud's thought process and show her conflict. By telling her story it would surprise people and connect them. With Emily Pankhurst being the main character we would have to hit certain facts, but it means we could end up compromised. Maud is a fictional character but we felt that rather than watch an extraordinary woman do extraordinary things we could watch ordinary pawomen doing extraordinary things.
WIFT: Carey's character in Suffragette, your interpretation of Jane Eyre, The Other Boleyn Girl - there's a theme here - is it "Forgotten Girl" (as opposed to Gone Girl??) or dare I say it a post feminist slant on history?
FW: What we like to do is make films about people who don't have a voice, who you don't always see on screen. You don't purposely look for those ideas. Me and the producer Alison Owen like to tell stories and have ideas that connect personally to ours.
WIFT: OK so I have to ask this - you are a woman very much in a man's world despite your years at Ruby - the stats from the United States on gender equality in film are not great - so what's your perspective on the United Kingdom?
FW: In UK and Hollywood a major problem is lack of female directors - less than ten percent of feature films are made by women. The stats on short films is that many women don't make the second film. Rarely do they convert to another film and that is when they drop off. I don't know the answer - maybe it's positive discrimination? The reason why there is more equality in banking and government is because they have to hit quotas. Film and TV could do this in a good way. Not having quotas is not allowing female directors their opportunities. Those big series like Downtown Abbey, where you can see the proportion of male to female, are not so bad but they should be part of building the new.
WIFT: There is still a lot of public funding for films in the United Kingdom and your public broadcasting model is the envy of many countries including New Zealand where we have a strong commercial model. Despite this there is still a lot of discussion in The Guardian for example about the "State of British Public Broadcasting" - what is your take? Should you be more commercial or stick with the current model?
FW: What I can say is the government is trying to strip back on the BBC in particular and that would be tragic. It's important that there is real journalism. Print media is a whole new beast because of how we consume media. The spotlight has moved on but it leaves you with this thing about the important role that journalism used to have - people striving to uncover the truth of what goes on in society. But they are not paid enough money, they don't have full time jobs. The BBC allows for a place where not it is not commercially funded so there is no alliance to any agenda. We should be able to get honest stories and I think it's imperative that journalism and stories are consumed. We are fighting with everything we have to keep the BBC and the BFI is fighting too to get help for my industry. Without them it would be even harder.
WIFT: Do people just think - "Oh yeah OK" when they see the credits roll and New Zealand at the top of the list for giving women the vote? Does it matter? I am more concerned about the countries at the bottom personally. At the screening I attended a spontaneous cheer went up when we came up first because usually internationally we only come first for sport. Can you pass on any reactions?
FW: People are not shocked about New Zealand being first even though they may never have known, it's just what you imagine about New Zealand and about something in the distant past - 1893 remember! It feels like a history book date. But as the list grows to the contemporary date, Saudi Arabia, for example, some people start to cry. France. Italy, some people do not say a thing. But there is also whooping and cheering so you need to stay for the credits! From Switzerland onwards, there is a feeling - "are those dates correct? Can they be correct?" And they are. As with all suffrage movements it is very nuanced and people don't know - and this is educated liberal people. I believe the more people there are who know, the more they can help.
WIFT: Ok - best and worst piece of advice you were given about pursuing a career in film/TV
FW: On the whole people throughout my career have been incredibly supportive. I don't think people are restricted on their view about women having a career in film. People (and lots of whom are women) do go to film school. But the worst thing is the usual stuff - I'm relatively youngish and blonde which is not what people expect when they meet me given the type of themes I pursue in my work.
WIFT: Any mentors you'd like to mention or credit?
FW: Alison Owen my producer. We don't work together any more full time but she has been one of my mentors. Tessa Ross used to be the head of Film 4 and incredibly supportive. Ben Roberts and David Cossie are great mentors. And I think it's imperative to have their advice and my mum too! A big part about the best and worst things - the best thing is that your parents can let you do what you want to do - whatever makes you happy. Mine did.
WIFT: What difference do you want Suffragette to make? It's not purely a piece of entertainment after all - although I like the good pace of it - but you must want a longer term outcome from it? I took my 18 year old daughter to it and she loved it, but she does consider it to be one of those battles that were fought by oldies like her mum - in NZ it was apartheid, gay rights, same sex marriage, changing the voting system to MMP etc� what would you tell a young women of 18 about to vote for the first time to take away from the film?
FW: I hope the film starts off a bigger conversation with everybody so people are aware of all issues facing women. It would be amazing if women would come together and engaged more in politics.
And be more inspired to tell their stories. If the suffragettes can - we can. We can gain a voice. Everyone who worked on the film wants to be part of making sure young people register to vote. It was very hard fought for.
WIFT: SO apart from Christmas - what is on the cards for you at the moment and for next year?
FW: I have two movies to get made. One called Country Music - about a woman who wants to be a Nashville singer, starring Karen Gillan from Dr Who.
And a film written by Martin Sixsmith who wrote Philomena. And Sarah [Gavron, director of Suffragette], Alison and I have a couple of movies in development that we would like to make over the next two-three years. And I'd love to be invited down to New Zealand - it's just a matter of finding the time!
By Josie McNaught