Jill Craigie (1911 – 99) was better known in later life as the wife of Michael Foot, the Labour leader who contested Margaret Thatcher’s bid for a second term in 1983. Yet, she had a remarkable earlier career as one of the few women to break into film directing in the 1940s. A new documentary by Lizzie Thynne, Independent Miss Craigie, uncovers her struggles to get her radical films produced and distributed, highlighting the obstacles she encountered and the opportunities she seized to use the cinema to campaign for a ‘Better Britain’ after World War 2.  

Independent Miss Craigie comes to Tyneside Cinema Sat 12 February and we are delighted to welcome director Lizzie Thynne for a live Q&A following the screening - to find out more click here!

Craigie’s brief series of war-time documentaries combined polemic, drama and humour in distinctive ways and stand out against the more familiar work produced by the male directors of the British Documentary Movement led by John Grierson. Her first film Out of Chaos (1944), is an innovative short showing official war artists at work, suggesting that interpreting the experience of war was as important as other war work in defending and maintaining the country. It features Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland researching and executing specific pieces. Craigie’s papers utilized in the film show how closely she worked with them to garner the artist’s perspectives on their process.

Her other films of the 1940s (now available on BFI Player) The Way We Live (1947), and Blue Scar (1949) (her only feature) also demonstrate her passionate commitment to building a more egalitarian society. In the former, she involved the residents of Plymouth as actors in a story campaigning for the modernist plan for the reconstruction of the badly blitzed city; in the latter, funded partly by the newly established National Coal Board, she worked with miners in Neath/Port Talbot collieries to devise a fiction film about their experiences of nationalization. In both these films, her feminism prompts her to wonder how far the proposed and actual reforms in state and local planning will benefit women, including the women stuck in remote pit villages. Her most militant film, and maybe the one that speaks most to present day politics is To Be a Woman, 1951, an astoundingly progressive film advocating equal pay for women. It was unusually funded – by donations by members of the Equal Pay Campaign, particularly members of the National Union of Women Teachers – another testimony to Craigie’s determination and inventiveness as well as her networking.

Independent Miss Craigie interweaves glimpses of her personal life with a focus on the making and distribution of her films across eight chapters, including through setting up her own production company Outlook Films with her producer, William MacQuitty, to make Blue Scar, a film whose socialist perspective they knew would make it a hard sell to studios and exhibitors. I traced the tensions both in her work and her life between her socialism, and her feminism, as well as the conflicts between domestic responsibilities and professional aspirations which characterized many women’s lives then and now. Craigie was devoted to Foot and an ardent supporter of his politics, but her embrace of the role of homemaker for him, made it even more difficult to complete her own projects, including her book on her life-long interest, the Suffragette movement, Daughters of Dissent, still unpublished at her death in 1999. My documentary also suggests that her confidence was undermined by a traumatic event – her rape by Arthur Koestler in 1953 – an occurrence not made public until she finally revealed it to Koestler’s biographer, David Cesarani, some 40 years later.

Independent Miss Craigie adopts a dual narration to tell its subject’s story: firstly, a scripted narration performed by Hayley Atwell and based on Craigie’s own words from and recordings of her actual voice in television and audio interviews. I was struck by the contrast between these sources – between the apparently confident and assertive young director suggested by her written papers and statements, mainly from the LSE Women’s Library and the British Film Institute, and her interviews given in later life. I wondered how far she had been affected, not only by events in her personal life, but by the sexism of the film industry and by being singled out in her youth by her misleading designation as ‘Britain’s only woman director’ or as she put it ‘a freak.’

The film is part of a wider research project Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, based at the University of Sussex. The project puts Craigie’s achievements on the map not only through this film but through a book authored by my collaborators, Yvonne Tasker and Sadie Wearing, and examines what her marginalization suggests about the need to make film histories more inclusive.