Gender, Race and Society: films

William Raban Thames Film 1986

William Raban
Thames Film 1986

© William Raban / LUX

Berwick Street Film Collective Nightcleaners 1975

Berwick Street Film Collective
Nightcleaners 1975

© Berwick Street Collective / Lux

Horace Ové Pressure 1975

Horace Ové
Pressure 1975

© British Film Institute


Launch 1973
10 min
Side Gallery, Newcastle

The Amber collective formed in 1968 with the aim of documenting working class communities. The film Launch 1973, is one of the more clearly Griersonian documentaries Amber have made and reflects something of the groups’ intentions and identity. The film shows the construction and launch of a tanker at the Wallsend shipyards. Rather than focusing on the royal visitor who is present to name the vessel, the narrative emphasis is placed on labour and community.

Isaac Julien

Territories 1984
25 min
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

Territories 1984 is an experimental documentary about the Notting Hill Carnival. It locates the event within the struggle between white authority and black youth. The contested spaces of the carnival reflect its history as a symbolic act of resistance. In Territories, Julien combines carnival scenes with archive news footage, juxtaposing looks of desire and alienation from police to reveller, woman to man, man to man. Its title ‘refers not only to geographical spaces, but to the occupied and controlled spaces of race, class and sexuality.’

William Raban

Thames Film 1986
66 min
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

Thames Film 1986 traces a journey along the Thames from London Bridge to the open sea through a landscape of docks, wharves, and warehouses. The modern scene is interwoven with archive footage of the river, taken from a time when it was the artery to the British Empire. Travel writer Thomas Pennant had followed this same route in the eighteenth century. Shots of the river are juxtaposed with historical images of the same sites and accompanied by readings from Pennant’s Journey from London to Dover 1789. The flow and flotsam of the Thames past and present thus becomes a meditation on the sites of modernity.

Black Audio Film Collective and John Akomfrah

Handsworth Songs 1986
61 min
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

Handsworth Songs 1986, directed by John Akomfrah (born 1957) under the aegis of the Black Audio Film Collective, addresses black British experience, race relations and the politics of representation. It was made at a critical moment following riots in Birmingham. The film rejects straightforward photographic realism in favour of a montage juxtaposing news reports, interviews, archival footage and dramatisation. This approach challenged the realism of the British documentary tradition. The film questions who has the power to speak in Britain and demonstrates how a group can be marginalised by the practises and ideology of mainstream media.

Berwick Street Film Collective

Nightcleaners 1975
90 min
Courtesy of Mary Kelly, James Scott, Humphry Trevelyan and the Estate of Marc Karlin/LUX

Nightcleaners 1975 was conceived as a campaign film about the struggle to unionise women working as contract night cleaners in office blocks. The film was shot in a straightforward observational way but was later edited in an experimental manner. For art theorist Griselda Pollock it addresses ‘the fundamental contradiction between the typical cinematic means of producing a ‘truth’ about working-class life…and the political aesthetics of a film that advertised its own manufacture.’ Several years in the making, it stands as a landmark in British political cinema and of collective and feminist filmmaking.

Horace Ové

Pressure 1975
90 mi
Collection: BFI National Film and Television Archive

Pressure 1975 was the first feature length British film made by a black British director, Trinidadian-born Horace Ové. Filmed in a gritty, realist style, with the exception of one key ‘dream’ sequence that draws on Surrealist film, it depicts the efforts of a British-born black teenager to find his first job, whilst struggling to rationalise the casual racism and contradictory values he encounters within society. The issues and themes explored in Pressure remain relevant to the black experience in Britain today.

Paul Watson, Franc Roddam

The Family 1974
29 min
Collection: British Film Institute, National Film and Television Archive

Paul Watson’s 12-part documentary series The Family 1974 originated the ‘fly on the wall’ genre in Britain, a radical disruption of convention at the time but now ubiquitous in British television. The series focuses on the working-class Wilkins family from Reading and sets out to reveal family life in Britain. At turns poignant, hilarious, and painful, the Wilkins demonstrate remarkable candour in their on-screen exchanges. The series divided critics and viewers, the airing of previously taboo subject matter – casual racism included – led Mary Whitehouse to call for the series to be banned. This series raised decisive questions about the limits and ethics of documentary, a debate that continues today.

Michael Apted

21Up 1977
100 min
Granada Television Archive

‘Give me a child until he’s seven and I’ll show you the man’. Granada TV’s World in Action series took this Jesuit proverb as the basis for 7Up 1963, its acclaimed study of a disparate group of children from different social backgrounds. Apted, who worked as an assistant on 7Up, took up the project to revisit and update the story every seven years. 7 plus seven was televised in 1970, followed by 21Up in 1977 and so on; 49Up was aired in September 2005. This ground-breaking project could be said to have entered the national consciousness as epitomising the documentary form.