When the theme for the 59th BFI London Film Festival is ‘the year of strong women’, it seems unsurprising that festival director Clare Stewart would have chosen Suffragette as the opening night gala. And as a compliment to director Sarah Gavron’s film, BFI curators Bryony Dixon and Margaret Deriaz have mined the archives for footage relating to the women’s rights movement. The result is Make More Noise!, words taken from a legendary 1913 speech by British political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, calling for women to be louder, more visible, and impossible to ignore.
The 21 short films selected for this compilation from the BFI National Archive provide a glimpse not only of news footage of the suffragettes, but also at the way women were depicted in turn-of-the-century and Edwardian comedies, sometimes embraced and sometimes mocked. The documentary footage is fascinating, revealing the sheer numbers of people who flooded the streets to protest alongside the suffragettes, including working-class men, who also lacked the right to vote. There is disturbing footage of the infamous death of Emily Davison, who threw herself in front of the King’s horse on Derby Day (the importance of which went unnoticed by the filmmakers, who kept on rolling), as well as images of the huge crowds at her funeral procession. The war brought new work opportunities for women, and we see them staffing munition factories as well as a field hospital in France, where they served as orderlies, nurses, and surgeons.
But as well as the wealth of news reels, the curators have also taken a playful approach to the era, unveiling a host of comedic portrayals of females – still often played by men. In the mischievous ‘Did’ums Diddles the P’liceman’, a young boy dressed as a suffragette mercilessly taunts a policeman into a wild chase. In another, ‘Women’s Rights’, two women (men again) are depicted as foolish gossips. In a 1913 comedy, a husband, outrageously forced to look after his own children by his suffragette wife, dreams of extracting his revenge. But the highlights are the pre-war short films featuring the Tilly girls (Alma Taylor and Chrissie White), two high-spirited young women determined to be gleefully and gloriously independent.
Soundtracked and performed by composer and pianist Lillian Henley, who was commissioned by the BFI to create an energetic period score, Make More Noise! is a fascinating, moving and entertaining tribute to the suffragettes. While it seems like a shame that more wasn’t made creatively of the rather dry intertitles, used to introduce the shorts, it’s a small niggle that can be overlooked.