From Orlando to Suffragette: how feminist films transform their audiences

What propels a person to whole-hearted engagement in social change?

Sophie Mayer
27 October 2015

Behind the scenes: Tilda Swinton and director Sally Potter on the Orlando set. Credit:

When I was 14, my friends and I went to see the arthouse film Orlando because we were bored and it starred an actor my friends had a crush on.

I couldn’t have predicted that that feminist film would subsequently consume my life: that it would alter my understanding of my sexuality, my conservative religious upbringing, and my vocation. Later that afternoon, that film inspired me to talk back to an airport security guard who was sexually harassing me. Referring to the title character Orlando’s journey from male to female, I told him to “Bend my gender,” and was nearly arrested.

What in a film could be so dangerous and alive that it can cross the screen and propel us into action? 20 years on, I’ve spent two years writing Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, trying to understand what it is that feminist cinema does to engage viewers, and how it changes us and our communities.

I couldn’t have articulated it when I was 14 (and I’m still trying), but I knew that Sally Potter’s film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s book had made me alert, awakened me in a way I’d never been before. Traversing 400 years of British history, and starring Tilda Swinton as Orlando, the film destabilizes gender, class and time. When I stepped out into the April late afternoon sunshine, my mind and body were on fire. Ideas about gender, desire, class, writing, and history had entered my mind through the hairs that stood up on the back of my neck when Swinton looked directly at the camera – directly at me.

While watching Sarah Gavron’s new film Suffragette, the first ever British feature film about the suffragette movement’s fight for the vote, I was reminded of that electrifying moment, and the question of what it is that propels a person towards whole-hearted engagement in social change. Towards the end of Sarah Gavron’s new film, the protagonist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has lost her family, her friend Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), and, momentarily, her faith in the suffrage movement. In despair, she turns to the book that Davison pressed into her hand at the Epsom derby before she was trampled by the King’s horse, titled Dreams. Huddled in a blanket on a cold church floor, she reads:

There is one way, and one only. Down the banks of Labour, 

through the water of Suffering. There is no other.

The poetic words of Olive Schreiner, South African pacifist, feminist and socialist, buoy her heart as they buoyed many of the suffragettes. Suffragette prisoners on hunger strike recited this poem in prisons in the early 20th century. Art has the power to move from the personal to the political and back again, a constant flow between heart and streets.

The history of feminist literature is as long as that of feminism itself: Virginia Woolf was speaking to suffragette workers’ education colleges while she wrote Orlando. Its film history is less well known. It’s only recently that feminism has found its place in mainstream cinema, but there’s a long history of alternative filmmakers documenting their own times as well as narrating histories.

As Mary Dore’s recent She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry demonstrates, the American feminist second wave of the 1970s put film at the heart of consciousness-raising (CR), the second-wave version of social media: small encounter groups in which women shared previously taboo stories and debated strategies.

Sophie Mayer march.jpg

She's Beautiful When She's Angry: 1970 March. Photo credit: Diana Davies.

Thanks to fast-loading, portable, affordable Super8 cameras, released by Kodak in 1965, feminists captured CR meetings, in which women talk intimately about abortion, rape culture, shadeism, marriage and the need for revolution. There’s an enormous privilege and joy in watching, in real time, as people undergo inner transformation by speaking out on what had been silenced: finally being heard.

Feminists such as Kate Millett, who made a CR-based film called Three Lives, filmed themselves and their friends, their protests and parties, their confrontations and caresses. You could be a viewer one minute, on screen the next, and behind the camera soon after.

That’s part of the transformational aspect: accessible technology, filmmaking classes, and a shared audience led many people to have a go at documenting their thoughts and communities, changing themselves by transforming film into a participatory medium. It’s still present, occasionally, in cinema: Jehane Noujaim’s 2013 documentary The Square is a patchwork of footage documenting the uprisings in Tahrir Square from the initial movement against Hosni Mubarak through the election and downfall of Mohamed Morsi.

As well as her own material from her time in Tahrir Square, she uses material shot by the collective Mosireen, whose co-founders Aida El Kashef and Khalid Abdallah also appear on-camera, debating, singing and working in the square. Knowing that they are both onscreen and engaged behind the camera has a similar effect to Orlando’s piercing gaze: they are addressing me and I become part of the movement. 

Within feminist circles, this is why both filmmaking and film viewing were seen as transformational: films such as Sally Potter’s debut Thriller travelled around college campuses and festivals awakening viewers’ consciousnesses – and inspiring them to take up the camera themselves. Thriller was an unlikely hit at the Ritzy in Brixton, too: the first British film with a black female lead (Colette Lafont), it’s an avant-garde re-staging of the opera La Bohème with high theory jokes thrown in. But Lafont’s critical performance as Mimi, the tubercular seamstress brought back to life by the film, did thrill audiences. She reached through the screen.

Collectives such as the Latin American Cine de Mujer movement offered training and resources to working-class and indigenous women in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly as video camcorders and players became available, so videos could be made and shared far from cinemas. Oaxacan weaver and filmmaker Teofilia Palafox told a conference, “I am an artisan, I hand-weave, and I express my way of thinking in my weaving. We work with our hands like a woman film-maker does... That impulse makes us sense how to communicate using the medium we have at hand.” 

This kind of artisan filmmaking rarely has room to breathe within the global film industry, but we need it. And its innovations often originate where there is the least industrial infrastructure and support. Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, confronting a lack of local infrastructure, started her own production company, “to work and build an industry, so that everyone walks away well-paid, with great hours... Just a humane society, of sorts.”

Her observation caused another awakening for me: about how working in film can be dehumanizing. When films are made only to sell merchandise, cynically targeted by studios at middle-class straight cis male men (and hence directed by them), we lose faith in the medium.

So I found myself co-founding Raising Films, a campaign to improve film industry working conditions for parents so that more stories can be told. Aligning ourselves with the TUC’s campaign on parental leave and childcare, and campaigning for a recognition that equality and diversity depend on a level playing field for participation, we are working towards “a humane society” as well as a more equal one. We believe that film and television, because they hold a mirror up to society, can both reflect how it is changing and amplify that change – if everyone can participate.

At the end of Orlando, a pregnant Orlando runs through a minefield strafed by aircraft fire, which could be from any 20th century war. Detached from her nation, her house, her class privilege, and her lover, a figure for all civilians and refugees, she survives.

In the book, Woolf has Orlando give birth to a son who secures her entitlement to keep the Great House despite her change of gender. Potter’s radical ending – in which Orlando has a daughter, and gives up her house – speaks to our present.

She asks us not to settle for the big house and marriage, but also to keep reinventing ourselves for and with the times, in solidarity with the dispossessed. “There is one way, and one way only.” Feminist film asks us to open our heart, raise our consciousness, and be transformed.

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