Raising Films with Children

A talk for Raising Films about making films and having children.

The reason I am here is that Sophie Mayer asked me a few questions for a Raising Films survey and then suggested I turn my answers into a talk before the serious business of the day. So this is going to be a personal and shambolic prelude before you get the surveys and statistics.

I am 66 – sometimes people suggest I pretend to be younger, that I could get away with it but why would I wish my life away? I’ve lived all these years, some well, some badly and I’m still living them. I’m a film- maker, I have a son who is forty-seven and I am a grandmother with two teenage granddaughters so I guess those are my Raising Film qualifications. Her first question was:

You’ve been working in British film and television as a director, writer and producer for nearly 30 years now. Have you seen any change in who gets to make work over that time — for better or worse?

I have to say that I haven’t seen much change, absolutely none with regard to race or class and only a little with gender. In terms of genuine diversity there has certainly been a whopping amount of hot air and bluster. There are women in some top jobs but they also mostly come from a very narrow social spectrum and the same old universities.

Of course!

The film industry is not divorced from society at large – however much we might like to believe we are more enlightened and forward thinking than everybody else - and so those in power are primarily white men from privileged backgrounds. It’s just the way it is everywhere. 

Many of those men are fathers but … somehow this doesn’t seem to get in the way of their careers.

I have just been writing fiction scripts based on front line research with thirteen and fourteen year old teenagers. Of course many things have got better for girls but when I watch the music videos they love with one beautiful young woman after another wiggling her bum or boobs at the camera and sticking her index finger suggestively into her pouting mouth ... I wonder how much has really changed. The boys get lad points for posting pictures of sexual activity and the girls get called sluts or slags. It’s just the way it is.

There are probably a few more women maintaining film careers while having small children - more  producers and editors because they can regulate their hours – but not so many directors or crew because filming is a rabbit hole and you slip down like Alice until you come out the other end. So if you are a mother who can manage not to see your children for these periods and you have the resources to make childcare arrangements then go for it. But it’s not what everyone wants or can do.

I know so many young women in their thirties feeling the biological clock ticking and panicking about having babies afraid the babies will scuttle their careers and sink them into oblivion forever. What kind of choice is that really? Why can’t we have our cake and eat it?

Perhaps we could think about a system that values lives that don’t move seamlessly from media studies, to a rig show, to constructed reality (that phrase really does my head in) or alternatively, if it’s a drama career you’re after, spells on Casualty or Hollyoaks and then the big Sunday night stuff or the Great British whatever and a feature film every now and then if you’re lucky. It makes me feel claustrophobic even reading that out.

Wouldn’t it be better to have some real life experience if you’re going to try and tell stories about other people’s lives?

About ten days ago I took part in a podcast about inequality with a philosopher and an epidemiologist and there was a great deal of talk about the immiserated lives at the bottom of the pile, suffering grinding poverty, lower life expectations, epic mental health problems, malnutrition, obesity, high levels of violence, of murder, hangdog, vulnerable people defeated by life. My God, it sounded awful.

Now there’s some truth in that but I am not a fan of victim speak – it’s boring and disempowering and it doesn’t get us anywhere.

I did make some feeble attempts to challenge this view – most of my films are set in the most marginalized communities and the times I spend there are full of life, of humour, of community and resistance. Perhaps it is inchoate and depoliticized in many ways, what starts as a riot usually ends with stealing tellies and mass incarceration but I love the underclass because they just won’t lie down and take it.

But it was only after it was over that I realised what had been bothering me the whole time, my elephant in the room, an elephant I had somehow forgotten about in a bizarre attack of amnesia. I spent at least 15 years of my own life with either no income or reliant on social security and then on income support because I could never earn enough to dig myself out of the poverty trap. But when I think of that time I do it with great affection. I became a single mother at nineteen, I worked in a hospital kitchen for years, picked blackcurrants, worked in a circuit board factory, waitressed, worked in a red light district bar in Barcelona - as well as being an artist, a trade union shop steward, a political activist, a lover, a friend.  I sprayed political slogans on walls, smoked rollups and experimented with different ways of living. It’s true I struggled paying my bills but I wasn’t defined by that. I certainly did not want pity.

Again, a few days later when the organisers of this event asked me for a cv I automatically started adapting one of the templates I always use, I made this, wrote that, won this and that award blah blah blah and then realised that I always skip over that period in my life which was so rich in experience as if it were completely irrelevant to my work and who I am. So I tried to write this one differently even if it made me sound like a bit of a nutter. There’s a wonderful book by Mary Douglas called Purity and Danger where she argues that dirt is ‘matter out of place’ – food in the bathroom or personal information in a business setting.

But the dirt and the mess is where the transgression, the poetry and the sublime live.

We need to value not just those people we throw away, who we consider surplus to requirements deserving only to be locked up, judged or pitied but the experiences we ourselves have in liminal spaces and the children we claim to love.

Small children are not just an inconvenient interruption until we can get on with getting on, real struggle doesn’t just slow you down and there is no substitute for real experience. So what I am getting around to saying is that perhaps we should value these messy times that are not just an obvious step on the career ladder.

The reason that I am welcomed into difficult areas – working with inner city gangs or on very tough housing estates or with homeless people is precisely because I don’t assume that their lives are less interesting than mine, I’ve been there – actually I assume that there’s are probably more eventful and interesting. I am not taking my jewels to them, it’s an encounter that is certainly enriching on my part and I try my best to make theirs too.

It’s not just mothers but people from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different ages … do we really relish this sea of familiar faces at these kinds of festivals? With all the unpaid internships which only young middle class people can afford to do, how will things ever change?

There are different things we can do. One is obviously encouraging parents and carers back into the workforce without penalising them as if it’s been some kind of non-time or set back. Perhaps some more fluid training spaces would help in these changing times.

I didn’t go to film school so I can’t stand here and say it’s essential. But I do think having a group of peers can be very helpful and that’s something I never had, I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t understand how the system worked. If there were film schools that valued different kinds of experiences, that were properly funded and went out to recruit the people who think this is not for them, that would change some things. I know from my own work that if you put out an open audition call you are basically inviting middle class people to come forward. Nobody else will think it applies to them. You have to get off your arse and go to places where other lives are lived and beg them to come in, we need them.

Now this last section is nothing to do with having children, or not much anyway but I know there are some young people here who are probably bewildered about where the door is never mind getting a foot in it, whether you have children or not.

So I started with a question that was asked of me and I will end with one.

How have you sustained your career over that time?

I’ve done it in my way, I was in my late thirties before I even started and there’s no formula.

I work across different mediums because I find the best way to tell a particular story I want to tell. So I make documentaries and fictions, which are mainly street cast, I’ve made archive films, I have written and directed a couple of radio plays and directed operas at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and for the English National Opera in London, as well as a version of The Bach St Matthew Passion in Manchester with Streetwise and The Sixteen. I never had a cunning plan, I just go for the things that I have a passion for but I think it has probably helped me survive that I am not dependent on one single kind of funding and I only do things I am burning to do.

Work leads to work. Television used to have enough space for authored films and would fully fund them but this is no longer the case. I saw the writing on the wall and found new ways of doing what I wanted. I only work with people who interest me, whose lives intrigue and inspire me, the people I fall in love with and make me want to know more about them, those whose stories I want to tell. And that means I’m not chasing some fad or second guessing what the money wants. Often I am ahead of the game and that’s not a good place to be. You have to be in the right place at the right time and if you keep going, sometimes, miraculously you find that you are.

Penny Woolcock