After a recent nationwide tour, the BFI’s compilation of silent films about the suffragettes will be coming to DVD on the 23rd of November. To this end we have a review from Tara Judah (20th Century Flicks) on the importance and impact of this vital collection:
In film you’re expected to specialise. I haven’t done that. I’m not a silent film expert. What I am is a film critic and fierce feminist. One of many reasons film is important to me is because it takes the temperature of a contemporary ideology and embalms it for collective memory. When we revisit that, we do more than just learn about the past. We also learn about ourselves, now.
It is a huge responsibility, then, for the BFI National Archive to make visible and accessible their expansive repository for British collective memory and when Sarah Gavron’s feature film, Suffragette, made its way onto the release slate, a few bright minds at the BFI, and in film hubs across the UK, saw it as a perfect opportunity to make more noise for women.
Noise in silent film? Absolutely. Noise is not only about voice and sound – especially when those making noise are oppressed. And so we have a program of films about physicality, protest and presence.
Though separating what we think of as fact and fiction often feels natural, it would in this instance be a mistake. To that end curators Bryony Dixon and Margaret Deriaz have put short comedy films and actuality footage together, creating a collection of visual documents of the social values and dominant ideologies of the time.
This collection opens with a quotation from suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. The quote is about making more noise than anyone else to get reform realised. It is a fitting notion for what follows; a collection of silent films that show us how making noise can be about the ability to stand and embody a movement. That the simple act of being seen, captured on film and becoming a firm part of history is a noisy interruption in and of itself when it comes to dominant narrative and ideology. Banners, clothing and collective expression all expose and shame the oppressive nature of a so-called polite, and unmistakably patriarchal, society.
Each of the films is preceded by short sentence or two that gives context to the footage that follows. It’s both helpful and manipulative – if you didn’t already consider female comedy disruptive then you undoubtedly will after reading the word ‘havoc’onscreen. And if you weren’t sure where the focus lies in newsreel footage from Derby Day and protests in London, then you will after the BFI have told you how to read the footage.
Usually I don’t like to be told, but this is one instance in which I find it entirely appropriate. Firstly, these films are being made available for the mainstream and it would be elitist to assume everyone has a trained cinematic eye. Secondly, it is women doing the telling. Though the footage itself comes from an often unsympathetic male perspective, its subjects are women. Furthermore, the program was curated by women and it is scored by a woman.
Lillian Henley’s musical accompaniment is excellent. Her ability to delicately negotiate between a lively and apprehensive tone as problematic content appears in some of the comedies is a true skill. In this collection there are images that should rouse anything other than laughter; those that make fun of suffragettes through stereotype and bawdy humour, but Henley crafts subtle emotional cues to highlight that the content is not funny. Through those darker chords she allows us to see the footage for what it really is: an example of the derision and condescension women faced at the hands of both entertainment and the broader rules, structures and policies held by patriarchal society.
Too often films with content that is inherently racist, sexist and otherwise ideologically unsound is given a jaunty score, to allow the contemporary audience to enjoy the film as it would have been enjoyed in its own time. Though context and historical reception is relevant, we need to be sure we don’t simply abide the indulgence of casual prejudice and bigotry through the lens of nostalgia and entertainment. We are responsible for how we receive what we view, whatever the era.
Not everything fits into the final selection and there are twelve additional shorts on the DVD release. Though the finished program itself is short, and I dare say it wouldn’t have felt at all long to include the few that were scrapped to the sidelines, the overall effect is no weaker for their exclusion. Similarly, a nice intro and some extended comments on each of the shorts in the way of a glossy booklet fill in a few history gaps.
But what truly makes Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film so incredibly engaging and relevant is that it casts a revisionist eye over film as both a political tool and an historical document. The curation shows the struggle the suffragettes faced at the time, but also how that struggle was perceived.
What’s important, now, is that we look at our collective memory as more than just a document. We must take responsibility for making enough noise now to integrate this prescient past into our current conversation.
Excellent words on an excellent collection, the programme is still touring select cinemas in the UK on the following dates:
26 November – Broadway Nottingham
15 December – Roses, Tewkesbury
17 December – South Hill Park Cinema, Bracknell
20 December – Quad Derby
Those who can’t wait can head over to the BFI online shop to pre-order their DVD of Make More Noise HERE!