It has been a while since this writer can remember attending a film press conference where all of the panel guests were women. But with women’s movement drama Suffragette, which opened this year’s London Film Festival, women were not just foregrounded in the casting, but were built into the DNA of the production from the ground up. The director, screenwriter, and most of the producers were all women. The film explores the journey of young London factory worker Maud Watts, a working class wife and mother, who grows more and more passionately committed to the burgeoning Suffragette movement in the early 1900s, in response to the terrible working conditions and oppression she encounters at all levels of her existence.
At a press conference to announce the launch of the film at the start of the festival, director Sarah Gavron, writer Abi Morgan and cast members Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep discussed how the film was designed to highlight the status of women today, the challenges of getting a film made in which the main roles were all given to women who were not designed to be either funny or romantic, and who they felt were the Suffragettes of today.
How much resistance was there in terms of getting the film off the ground?
Abi Morgan: Sarah and I have been on this project for about six years, but it has been truly Sarah’s passion project for the last decade. That should give you some idea. FIlm’s take time, but I think putting over a film fronted not just by one woman but by an ensemble of women- and they are not being funny and it’s not romantic – is hard. I think that became a huge obstacle. But we had an incredible group of producers out in the front Fay Ward, Alison Owen and “our man” Cameron McCracken, and I think of all of them as feminists. So it really took both men and women to bring this to the screen.
Sarah Gavron: It was a tough proposition but we wanted to stick to our guns. We did have champions; those producers who are sitting in the front row. There were others too: Tessa Russell at Film4 back in the early days, the people at Focus, Cameron McCracken at Pathe who makes political and existing films, often directed by women. We were lucky to have those people around us.
On the lack of widespread knowledge about the Suffragette’s movement today:
Sarah Gavron: When we were talking to the academics who advised us on the film, they told us there weren’t surprised, it took age to get women’s history taken seriously in the academies, it took a long time to get it onto the school curriculum . I personally wasn’t taught anything about it, I remember just a few lines at the bottom of a page in a history book. And I think it’s partly a symptom of inequality.
Meryl Streep: There are so many stories that haven’t been told; that’s an important part of this film. There is no such thing as “women’s history”; there’s just “history” which women have been shut out of. There are some brave souls who have done some ‘spelunking’ to try to find out about it; like Amanda Foreman who has a series on the BBC called “The Ascent of Woman”. We can’t get it in the United States: but I think there’s interest. It is a question of rousing that interest. For me, I knew a great deal about the Suffragette movement in the United States but I didn’t know about it here. And I also didn’t know the condition of women here in 1913. I didn’t know that the marriage age was twelve for example; shocking. I didn’t know that once a woman was married she had no further claim to her name, any property she brought to the marriage, her children; she had no say in how they were raised or educated or even if they were sold off to be married. But to me that’s recent history; my grandmother was alive then and had a couple of children; and was not deemed capable of voting. It feels recent to me, and I’m passionate about it. Its means something to me.
But what I think is the great achievement of this film is that it is not about the women of a certain class like Emmeline Pankhurst; its about a working girl. I think that is part of why we can enter the film so easily and empathetically, as Carey plays this young mother who looks like us, but who’s circumstances are out of her hands completely.
On the film’s connections to the status of modern women:
Carey Mulligan: For me, what I loved about this film is the it didn’t feel like a documentary of the time, it felt more like a film about today. I always felt its resonance with where we are; a film to mark the achievements of these women and what they gave us, and to highlight where we are in the world. Of course we still live in a society, in a world, that is sexist, that goes throughout our history. I think for me it was great moment to re-understand what women went through to get the vote and for me to be empowered. Of course in the UK here we are largely very privileged, but the film does relate and talk to the situation in the rest of the world for women, in terms of their vote, not just living standards and wages and the way they are treated. We always felt that bringing the film back around to today and looking at where we are now was the most important thing about the film. Give people the history, but also open their eyes. It has really done that for me.
Meryl Streep: I agree. To make a film like this, it will circulate the globe. It will encourage people who have very little hope; people who’s lives look very much like those of the women in 1913 in London.
As for the appearance of sexism today: the lack of inclusion of women in decision making bodies in every single enterprise in the world. For example, the decisions being made about refugees; why are the bodies making decisions about them not half women? Two places you cant vote in the world: Saudi Arabia, and The Vatican. If men can’t look around the board of directors in a company and not think something is wrong that half are not women, then we aren’t going to make any progress.
How did the cast work together?
Sarah Gavron: Well none of the cast had worked together before, but when we got together to rehearse – we had three weeks of sitting in a room with Abi to discuss it plus months of prep before that – they all immediately formed this bond and became great friends. We actually had problems stopping them laughing and getting back to work! I had nothing to do with it. An unusual sense of camaraderie, and I wonder whether it was not just because we were telling this story that everyone felt passionate about, but also because there was this unusual balance; we had lots of men and women in key positions. That was exciting; to see lots of women on screen together.
Abi Morgan: It’s quite rare to get this length of rehearsal period, but this means you can make things more bespoke for the actors and also start to listen to them; they are the keepers of the character. One of the things that is very interesting to me is that the great quote we use in the film was no act of genius on my part, it was Carey Mulligan who found it. I think that is when great work happens, when you truly start to collaborate and the actors discover stuff and bring it into the film. It is a beautiful end to the film, that quote, and I struggled to find that. It was down to the actors who understood the themes of the film and had journeyed through it.
Who are the Emmeline Pankhurst’s of today?:
Carey Mulligan: Malala Yousef (nods of agreement from all panel guests)