"The riskiest thing I've done is to deface a public building" says Joyce Brand, a mild-mannered 78-year-old with a penchant for activism.
She also once chained herself to a chair at a council meeting. Brand is the star of the documentary The Campaigner, and just one of a number of fascinating characters who are the subject of a series of short films made by women at the Underwire film festival, which has been running this week at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, south London.
In its third year, the festival highlights female talent in film, including directors, cinematographers, writers and editors. Research by the British Film Institute says that in 2010, only 22 per cent of employees in film production were women. “This Christmas, the only film at the cinema with a female lead is Twilight,” says the co-founder of the festival, Gemma Mitchell. “But Bella Swan isn't a feminist role model because she is defined by her relationship with two men ... we need to see more women as the beast, the boffin, the maverick...” But there are plenty of strong female protagonists in this year's Underwire line-up.
“I think women today are more ambitious. There are still struggles, just different ones,” says Riffat Ahmed, who wrote and directed Clench: What Are You Fighting For? – about a young woman who takes up boxing at Salford Lads' Club after committing a crime. The film shows the male-dominated sport of boxing in an elegant and almost balletic light. “A lot of people assume it's a violent sport but it's actually really disciplined; so the sport is subject to prejudice too,” says Ahmed. Her lead actress, Hussina Raja, boxes in real life, giving her powerful punches an authentic feel. “She is really dynamic. We went to classes together and oh my gosh, I was terrified...but I learnt a lot from her.”
Sarah Kenchington, the subject of a short film by director Emma Dove, entitled On Another Note, makes mechanical instruments from junk. One scene shows Kenchington wearing a hard hat with a bugle stuck on it. In another, she is lit by sparks as she welds scrap metal. “If I hadn't been a musician I would probably be working on a building site,” she says.
Carol Morley directed Dreams of a Life, a feature-length docu-drama about a woman called Joyce Vincent, who was found in a North London bedsit three years after she died. Morley will sit on a debate panel on Saturday to discuss the subject “why women can't make feature films” – a deliberately provocative topic that highlights a real issue within the industry. She says: “Joyce was a woman who'd been forgotten, and people commented that they were surprised when they found out she was beautiful, because only an ugly woman would have been ignored. It shows that people make negative assumptions about women. The same is true in films. I've heard people say they wouldn't hire a female director of photography. It's a difficult thing for the organisers to ask these uncomfortable questions. There are no easy answers, but it's important to carry on the discussion.