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‘Suffragette’ Director Sarah Gavron on The Importance of Representation and Those Controversial T-Shirts

'Suffragette' Director Sarah Gavron on The Importance of Representation and Those Controversial T-Shirts

READ MORE: Telluride: How ‘Suffragette’ and ‘Winter on Fire’ Capture the Zeitgeist

Sarah Gavron got into filmmaking to make a difference. After years of loving all forms of art, it wasn’t until discovering the films of female directors that she saw a place for herself in the industry. Since then, Gavron has dedicated herself to telling tales of women, whom she feels have been too longed ignored in history and art.

In 2003, she earned praise for the TV-movie “This Little Life,” which focused on the story of a young mother’s struggle to do right by her sickly son. Four years later, Gavron took to theatres with a vibrant adaptation of the best-selling Monica Ali novel “Brick Lane,” which explored the emotional journey of a Bangladeshi woman trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage. But Gavron’s latest narrative has come under fire by the very audience she hoped to inspire.  

Reuniting with “Brick Lane” screenwriter Abi Morgan, Gavron dug into the rich history of the British suffrage movement with “Suffragette.” The film’s all-white cast spurred early outcry over “white feminism” that blithely ignores the contributions and struggles of women of color. This accusation gathered steam when pictures surfaced of stars Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan wearing t-shirts that read, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Yet, for all the controversy her film is stirring, Gavron seemed unruffled when Indiewire met in a posh New York hotel room to discuss the path that led to “Suffragette,” and the political taboos it takes on.

How did you get into filmmaking?

As a teenager, I was really interested in drama and art. I did painting and drawing. I did some acting and loved theater. But there weren’t films around. I didn’t see many films. I saw some quite mainstream Hollywood films. It was only when I was in my early twenties that I started to see the films of British filmmakers like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, and Terence Davies and Stephen Frears. I thought, “Oh! Gosh, they’re reflecting the world around me and telling stories that speak to me about the world around me.”

I started to have these ideas for films. They were like running images in my head. But I didn’t think I could be a director. I just literally didn’t think it was a possibility. Then I started to suddenly see films of women. I saw some early Jane Campion films. I saw Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay.” I saw Kathryn Bigelow a bit later on, and Claire Denis, and Sally Potter. And I thought, “Wow! You can be a woman and still do this.” And so I worked in documentaries for some years and then I dared to apply to the National Film and Television School for the Fiction Direction course to train as a director.

That’s interesting, because a lot of people who talk about the importance of representation say that if girls don’t see it, they don’t know they can be it. That seems to be really true to your experience.

Yeah. So true. I can’t say that strongly enough. That’s why I’m excited that this film — or if I, as a director – -can talk to other women, giving them confidence to be directors. We need to shift the balance. We’ve got 1-10% of films are made by women.

What drew you to making “Brick Lane” your feature directorial debut?

I made lots of short films, about nine or ten short films. And then I made a television film called “This Little Life.” And that got me meetings. So I started talking to Film4 — Tessa Ross was the head of Film4 at the time — about doing a cinema film. And I’d read “Brick Lane” (the novel by Monica Ali) and really, really responded to it. And she said, “Oh, we’ve got the rights and we want to make a film.” It engaged me on so many levels. You know, I was the daughter of immigrants. There were so many connections. It was one of those stories that was set in a very, very specific community but spoke to people all over the world, that’s how it’d become a bestseller. So, I was excited about telling that story. And then after that, I’d been really interested in the suffragette movement, and wanted to tell that story, which is an untold story. So one thing led to another and that was a film I developed with Film4 as well as with Focus Features and Pathe.

You mentioned your TV movie “This Little Life.” The Observer wrote of it, “This was a perceptive piece of television that could only have been conceived by women.” What do you feel female directors bring to the medium that is unique?

It’s hard for me to stand outside my work and see it. Because it’s so much in my DNA, and I just look through my lens. I was struck reading about Toni Morrison recently that she talked about how “Beloved” was the book that she’d wanted to read that didn’t exist, and how she looks through her particular prism, her very specific gaze. And I thought, “Yeah. I think I do view the world in a very specific way.” I think it is undoubtedly, hugely informed by me being a woman. But it’s subconscious and intuitive. So much of filmmaking is about following your instincts and about accessing something quite emotional and intuitive. You also analyze and think consciously, but a lot of it is intuitive. 

So to that end, how did “Suffragette” become the follow-up?

I think I am drawn to those stories about women. I had a mother who got involved in grassroot politics when I was growing up. I watched her have agency and become political in a very male-dominated world. I think I connected with a lot of the story. There was this amazing TV series called “Shoulder to Shoulder” in the early ’80s that charted the suffragette movement and made everybody aware of it. I think the fact that there hadn’t been a big screen version of it, there were so many aspects that weren’t told or weren’t widely known, it became very exciting for me to tell this story.

Also I thought it really connects to the world we live in now. In the 21st century, we’re still battling inequalities. There are still so many issues that are pertinent. We need to remember how far we’ve come, and how hard fought for the vote was and how we must use it. I think here, in the build up to an election in England certainly there’s a kind of complacency and reticence about using the vote, particularly amongst young people. And this was a reminder of how important the vote is.

I was personally surprised by the brand of civil disobedience the London suffragettes employed. Not only did they break windows, they set off bombs. Was there a concern in making the film about how these acts would be perceived by a modern audience so fearful of terrorism and disturbed by the concept of civil disobedience?  

We talked about that extensively. What’s interesting about the context for it was that the women peacefully protested for about 40, even 50 years, using constitutional methods and politely asking for the vote against this intransigent government. It was just a series of broken promises that got them nowhere. And there was an effective press blockade, where most of what they did wasn’t reported. The King’s Speech year after year wouldn’t mention it. It was like they didn’t exist.

It was only when they turned to civil disobedience that they broke with that. It began to escalate. But what I think is really important to remember is that they never harmed human life. They attacked property, and nobody died as a result of this movement, except a few suffragettes themselves. That was a very clear edict. Nevertheless, we were fascinated at what drove them, looking at what drove women to that point.

Do you feel civil disobedience has a place in the contemporary political dialogue?

I think it certainly is part of it. We have to engage with it, don’t we? Because even in the Black Lives Matter campaign, it’s one of the methods. I think what we can do by making this film and looking at what drove those women to that point is talk about what inequality does, and the role of political activism and where you draw lines. I think that’s a really important discourse to have.

Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker?

I’m drawn to telling stories that mean something to me, and that I emotionally connect with. And I think actually yeah. I want to engage. I’m excited that it’s provoking a discourse. I’m excited about embracing that discourse. I’m passionate about embracing diversity behind and in front of the camera. I’m passionate about telling female stories that reflect our culture, that show people who have been written out of history and written out of culture. So yeah, I suppose all that is political, isn’t it?

You mentioned the discourse the film has inspired. “Suffragette” has drawn some criticism for not including any women of color within the suffragette movement, which piqued with the Time Out London cover where the women, who are white, wear a shirt that display the Emmeline Pankhurst quote, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Would you care to respond to this controversy?

The situation in the British movement is totally different than the U.S. movement, because obviously with the U.S. movement, the U.S. was much more ethnically diverse at the time. There were lots of women of color involved in the movement, and lots of them excluded from the movement. I can absolutely acknowledge the sensitivities around that, particularly in the U.S.

In the U.K., we didn’t have the brilliantly diverse Britain of today. Immigration primarily happened around the world wars and in the 1950s. There were pockets of immigrants, but their numbers were tiny. And the movement had — out of thousands of women — two women of color, who were known to be part of it: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who was an aristocrat, and Bhikaji Cama, another aristocrat.

We interrogated the written and photographic evidence because we’d made a film before that — I mean not because — but we’d a film before that of only people of color and not a single white member of cast. We were very aware of that. We interrogated all of the evidence and apart from those two aristocrats, and we were telling the story of the working women, there were immigrants. There were Irish immigrants and Eastern European immigrants and diverse people. And there’s this one photograph from 1911 before our story begins of a peaceful protest with a contingent of women from India. And of course there were women in India, fighting very actively for both Free India and Women’s Rights. But we were telling the story of this 2 ½-mile radius in London in 1912, and there wasn’t that diversity. So we’re just reflecting what was historically accurate. But there’s a completely different story to tell of the U.S. movement.

Speaking of the different stories there are to tell, a few months ago #filmHerstory was trending with people sharing the women of history they’d like to see biopics about. Do you have a female-fronted biopic you’d particularly like to see or make?

We have this game — Abi and I — where we go back through history and go, “What were the women doing?” Kind of every film I see that’s got men at the front of it, you see these glimpses of the women, I think, “I’d like to follow them into their house and see what they’re doing!” I kind of think we should look back, and not only to famous women. There are some (famous women who deserve biopics). Marie Curie, I recently read a good script about her. She should have a film made about her. Emmeline Pankhurst should definitely have a film made about her. Sophia Duleep Singh, who was the Asian aristocratic suffragette, there is going to be a TV program made about her, which is great. I think there are numerous women’s stories we should tell. But I’m also interested in the women in the shadows, the women who aren’t so known and digging out their stories. 

Was that part of why “Suffragette” is centered on an amalgamation character as opposed to one of the actual suffragettes?

Yes, she’s a composite. She’s really drawn very closely from working women whose accounts we read. You can find Maud in the research. She’s there. Every aspect of what happens to her is taken from some woman (who really existed). But we thought by telling the story of a woman with no platform, no entitlement, who had so much to lose, following their journey would connect to today in a way, rather than a biopic of an extraordinary woman.

What do you think the next great battle for feminists is?

I think there are women around the world who are still fighting for basic human rights. There are 62 million girls who are denied an education. 22% of Parliament members are female, and that’s double what it was in ’95, but it’s far from equal. We’ve got pay gap issue. Lots of battles to fight in terms of sexual violence, one in three women in the U.K. alone experience sexual violence. I think we need more women in boardrooms. We need more women in labs. So there are many, many fronts on which we need to keep going. But I think it’s good to remember how far we’ve come. So, there’s a lot to do. [laughs]

Do you consider yourself a feminist?


Do you think as a feminist filmmaker you have a unique responsibility in your movies?

Well, I think that when you make a historical political film you are very aware of your responsibility. I just wanted to make something that felt true and relevant and would prompt debate and discourse. And I embrace having that debate and discourse…I also hope this film reaches beyond. It’s not just about sexual inequality, it’s about inequality in all sorts of ways. I hope it speaks across cultures. I hope it includes women of all backgrounds, and men. To promote the debate amongst people broadly is my ambition for it.

“Suffragette” opens in theaters this Friday, October 23rd.

READ MORE: ‘Suffragette’ Director Sarah Gavron Explains Why She Didn’t Cast Women of Color

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