Lawmakers, not lawbreakers: director Sarah Gavron on ‘Suffragette’

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British film director Sarah Gavron’s latest feature film, “Suffragette,” which opened in the U.S. Friday, and debuts in East Coast theaters this weekend, is a gritty period-piece about the English women who struggled for nearly 70 years for the right to vote.

Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, Gavron’s film opens just as the 2016 presidential campaign is picking up steam with female candidates running in both parties.  Written by Abi Morgan, the film  focuses on the complexities of civil disobedience in the face of injustice.

The NewBostonPost sat down with Gavron on a blustery October afternoon to discuss the film’s relevance to 21st-century women.

NBP: What inspired you to cover the topic of the British suffrage movement specifically? It sounds like there hadn’t been a film about it before.

Gavron: There hadn’t, no. There’d been a TV series, “Shoulder to Shoulder,” but a long time ago, late seventies. But I didn’t learn it in school – I don’t know whether you learned it here – but I didn’t learn anything about the British or U.S. or any women’s movement at all and the version of it that most women know in the U.K. is the “Mary Poppins” version of “Sister Suffragette” and that’s about as much as people know.

It was when I started reading about it, hearing about it and talking to people about it, I realized there was this other story of these women who had sacrificed so much, gone to such great lengths and faced so much brutality at the hands of the police and not only did it seem overdue in terms of needing to be told, but it also seemed timely.

It echoed a lot of what was going on in the world today in terms of well, one, there seems to be this resurgence of women speaking out against repression and also activism and political movements is a big hot topic of today, and surveillance and state and police violence against protests, and force-feeding – it seemed to just resonate. And then of course the issues around inequality like the gender pay gap and the parental rights in some parts of the world and women’s rights over their own money. So, globally, it seemed to have lots of resonances and it seemed to be the time to tell it.

NBP: What inspired you to do the film from a working class perspective, from Maud’s perspective as a laundry woman?

Gavron: Well, it just seemed so more relevant in a way. If we told the story of Meryl Streep, Emily Pankhurst – it would be the story of an exceptional woman, a privileged woman, and we thought if we went through the working woman and watched her journey toward activism, it would connect more with today, you know, with the everywoman. It’s the story of the every woman and someone who doesn’t have any platform and finds her way. And also those women, usually their stories aren’t told, they’re in the shadows and they were really influential in this movement. It brought women together across classes and they made a big impact. And they had so much more to lose in a way than upper-class, middle-class women did. It felt like a way in that would be accessible to a modern audience.

NBP: It was really powerful at the end, the way you listed countries around the world with the dates that women in each received the right to vote. You hear about Saudi Arabia, but to see that list of countries where women still can’t vote and to see that it’s been more than 100 years since the first movements started.

Gavron: It does seem incredible, and they’re just now registering in the last month in the elections but they still have to be driven to the polling stations by men. … Then you think of someone like Malala who got shot by the Taliban for going to school. And 62 million girls worldwide still denied an education, you know, there are many ongoing issues.

NBP: One of the significant things in making the film was shooting in the House of Parliament for the first time.

Gavron: Yeah. It was the first time they’ve given access to the film crew.

NBP: What was that like?

Gavron: We said to each other, “we’ve got to be suffragette about this, we mustn’t take no for an answer.” So we just kept going and after the location manager kept going back and back and back and eventually they said yes. Then they said, so what’s the request, and we said, well, to bring in 300 supporting artists and horses and vehicles and stage an anti-government protest. And I just think the fact that they did let us in was such a marker of how we’ve moved on. How far we’ve come really. This establishment that barred women for all those centuries, there we were staging this riot scene that shed the government in such bad light – or, the government at that day, certainly.

NBP: Can you talk about some of the challenges you had in making the film?

Gavron: Apart from getting it off the ground and raising finance for a film about women, by women in a political and historical subject … when we came it, the big challenges were those set pieces, the smashing of the windows on Oxford Street, the rioting in the House of Parliament, the derby at the end. They involved a lot of supporting artists. It’s not easy to recreate 1912 London. Stunts, and visual effects and aspects that I’d never dealt with and we had to storyboard them meticulously and plan them meticulously and we were working with quite a tight budget and quite a tight timeframe and we were running often two or three cameras at the same time so there was kind of a mayhem, organized chaos that it was hard to keep a control of, which in a way worked for the film because it allowed a sort of almost vérité documentary sense that it was unfolding before you rather than being staged for the camera. That was the kind of notion behind it all.

NBP: I had heard there was a challenge to involve the male actors?

Gavron: I couldn’t have dreamed really, of a better (cast) – Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw and Sam West … but in the process when we first went out to the actors, some of the agents rang up and said, “Well, there’s not really very much for them. They’re just the husband.” And as Abi (Morgan, the writer) said, she spent years writing women chopping carrots in kitchens and men going out to save the world and she was quite delighted to reverse it for this.

NBP: What’s the reaction been like in the U.K. to the film?

Gavron: It’s the top of the box office. … Another thing that’s happening in the U.K. that never ever happens is that people are applauding. In the U.K. people are very reserved and they just file out of the cinema in complete deadly silence and don’t really talk. But they are having a very different response.

…The other thing that’s happening is that people are saying, “I’ll never not vote again” – and young people. You know, we’ve got a dwindling population of voters in the U.K. and I think you do here, and you’re coming up for an election year. It’s exciting that people are reconnecting with how important it is to stand up and be counted and be represented.

It’s so key. Before I did this project, I too was one of those people who was dissociated with why it was so important to vote. And what I realized is when they got the vote, these women, suddenly the government started passing laws affecting their lives. They gave them parental rights, allowed them to sit on juries. You kind of become complacent but you forget that you’re not represented a government might not do anything for you.

Now, young people in the U.K. don’t vote much – they do, but they don’t vote much – and tuition fees are being hiked up and benefits for young people are being taken away. Whereas the old people who come out in droves to vote are getting treated brilliantly by the government because they’ve got to keep their vote.

NBP: Because the story provides a  window into Maud’s life at a point in time, there’s not necessarily a narrative arc with a happy ending. It left my emotions raw. What was the decision process going into that?

Gavron: We didn’t want to wrap it up too completely. Sometimes history is wrapped up and we know it doesn’t really end like that. It’s also a hard story to finish anyway because it, like many political movements, ended in negotiation and took a while. The first World War interrupted their campaign and they suspended it for the war. It was finding an endnote that summed up. It was a climactic moment but left things a little open.

NBP: What lessons can modern working women learn from the suffragettes?

Gavron: One is to remind people how important it is to use your rights, and vote. And how precarious those rights are. I hope women are inspired to speak out and challenge everyday sexism, continuing inequality and fight for things in the 21st century that still need to be fought for.

NBP: In your opinion, what would you say are top issues for women today?

Gavron: I think it depends where you are in the world. Obviously there are some more fundamental rights that need to be fought for if you’re living in certain parts of the world, Saudi Arabia, but if you’re here in the U.K. there are different issues.

…One in three women in the U.K. experience sexual violence. We’ve got to continue on battling in that way, too. The representation of women in the media.

NBP: Critics have observed that there is little racial diversity in the film.

Gavron: (It’s) an important discussion. It’s actually just because here (in the U.S.) there were obviously lots of women of color involved in the movement and of course if you made a film here you’d obviously incorporate that. And some were included here and some were excluded and it’s left lasting wounds and it’s a complex history.

In the U.K., the issue of that time was class, not race, because we had tiny pockets of immigration and it was only later in the century with the First and Second World War, immigration and the 1950s onwards that created the diverse Britain we’ve got today. At the time there were only two women we could find who were women of color who were involved in the movement and they were both aristocratic.

…But what I hope is that this film which is very, very specific and within this two-and-a-half mile radius a hundred years ago telling a tiny part of the story resonates with all women, across the globe, whoever they are. That it contributes to a positive discourse about inequality and resonates with everybody.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or @karabettis