During the 1970s and 1980s, feminist and black artists and filmmakers used, and often subverted, documentary modes in order to address the role of women in society and the construction of a multicultural image of Britain. From the position of being excluded from mainstream history, female and black artists often adopted documentary practices to give weight to their arguments (through the presentation of ‘evidence’) or to challenge these practices from within, revealing apparently objective representation as a construction that derived its bias from the existing power relations within society.
Margaret Harrison, Mary Kelly and Kay Hunt collaborated on Women and Work 1973–5, an investigation of the differences between women’s and men’s pay in a Bermondsey factory. The work privileges factual data and direct testimony, presenting it as sociological evidence. The Berwick Street Film Collective, in which Kelly participated at this time, produced the experimental political film Nightcleaners 1975, which addressed similar social and gender concerns.
The films of John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien challenged the conventions of art and documentary, exploring issues of race and authority in Britain. The work of Gilbert & George also addresses issues of race, power and social unrest: in Cunt Scum 1977 obscene graffiti is combined with documentary images evoking the racial tensions and street violence of the time.
In television, Paul Watson and Frank Roddam’s influential series The Family 1974 saw the founding of the fly-on-the-wall genre in Britain; this new form, which has since become ubiquitous, began as a radical disruption of convention and a confrontation with questions of voyeurism and exploitation. Thus The Family addressed the limits and ethics of the documentary form.