The Camera Is Ours review – evocative shorts from pioneering female film-makers

This compilation of British documentary shorts, dating from the 1930s to the 1960s, comes with content warnings about racism – though the sexism can be just as shocking

Here is a feature-length selection of documentary shorts from Britain’s pioneering women film-makers from the 1930s to the 1960s – a theatrical “touring version” from the Independent Cinema Office, taken from a larger assortment on the BFI’s two-disc DVD release.

The directors are very often tackling what were considered – by the male producers, that is – to be the “women’s issues” of the day: motherhood, family, hearth and home. Sometimes these are the explicit themes and sometimes they are a subtext. Two of the films are prefaced with content warnings about racism (though not sexism): a blackface minstrel show in Broadstairs is shown in one film and, in another on obstetric education for working-class women, someone is shown repeating the extraordinary superstition that drinking stout will “give you a black baby” – although, unlike the minstrels, this is clearly signposted in the film itself as bizarre and wrong.

Beside the Seaside (1935), directed by Marion Grierson.
Beside the Seaside (1935), directed by Marion Grierson. Photograph: Independent Cinema Office

Beside the Seaside (1935) by Marion Grierson, sister of John Grierson, is a sprightly, ambient evocation of the prewar seaside holiday, regarded without criticism or irony as a healthy restorative tradition. There’s a little of Jean Vigo’s À Propos de Nice in it. Another Grierson sister, Ruby, directed the drama-doc They Also Serve (1940), a paean to the home-front wives and mothers whose husbands were away in uniform, or perhaps too old for service. Quite a few of these films show, with unintentional poignancy, how stressed and prematurely aged the women had become. That is partly true of Birth-Day (1945), directed by Brigid Cooper and Mary Beales, about how working-class women of Scotland should speak to the soothing and reassuring professionals at the antenatal clinic. And it’s certainly true of Kay Mander’s Homes for the People (1945), a much brisker and less patronising work about the need for proper housing.

The selection finishes with the aspirational and slightly baffling Something Nice to Eat (1967), directed by Sarah Erulkar, sponsored by the Gas Board, with input from the Sunday Times magazine, evangelising for an ambitious kind of cooking inspired by the classy French. The film is a bit insufferable once it becomes clear that it is entirely addressed to ladies, and there is a curious section praising the ultra-modern kitchen. The one shown here comes with a lava lamp – great, for those who can afford it.

• The Camera Is Ours is released on 3 June in cinemas.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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