- The Washington Times - Friday, October 30, 2015

Filmmaker Sarah Gavron dared to dream. After developing a taste for movies as a teenager, the British Ms. Gavron, inspired by female moviemakers, decided she too would follow them on the cinematic path.

“It was only when I saw films in my early 20s by Jane Campion, Mira Nair, Sally Potter and Kathryn Bigelow, I started to think, oh, it’s possible,” Ms. Gavron told The Washington Times. “I dared to suggest that I wanted to train to be a film director.”

Perhaps it’s little wonder then that Ms. Gavron’s latest film, “Suffragette,” tackles the still-uneven issue of women’s voting rights. Set in early 20th century London, the film, opening Friday in the District, stars Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a working wife and mother swept up in the crusade to win British women the vote.

“While we were researching, it felt like it became more and more timely,” Ms. Gavron said in an interview at the The Sewall-Belmont House, a museum in Northeast dedicated to women’s suffrage. “This is a story about activism and civil disobedience as a road to change” since the movement had thus far failed at the constitutional level, she said.

In “Suffragette,” Maud slowly makes the transition from obedient working wife to fervent believer in women’s right to vote, which causes her trouble both at home and with the law. Ms. Gavron said that, even though the setting is a century removed from 2015, the crusade for gender equality is as relevant today as it was then.

“There’s obviously the pay gap … representation of women in leadership [and] sexual abuse, which is an ongoing issue,” Ms. Gavron said. “And then women across the world fighting for the cause of human rights, education — all those things that women were discussing then.”

Bringing “Suffragette” to the screen, she believes, was not only a history lesson but also a reminder to contemporary audiences that much work needs yet be done. Ms. Gavron also hopes it will make women appreciate their enfranchisement and head to the voting booths far more than they do now.

“We just had an election” in Great Britain, “and young people, young women particularly, didn’t vote,” she relates with an air of genuine frustration.

Due to the age of the British electorate, Ms. Gavron said that the current regime in London is passing policies to help the elderly, largely at the exclusion of the young, minorities and women.

“That’s a reminder of how important it is to vote,” she said. “It felt like not only was it important to resurrect this period of history to remind us how hard-fought the vote was and how recent it was to change, but also to continue” against inequality, she said.

“Suffragette” co-stars Helena Bonham Carter as fellow activist Edith Ellyn, and three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep shows up in a brief-though-crucial role as the legendary suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst.

“When we were thinking about casting it, even though it’s this really small role, it’s very vital, and who do we get?” Ms. Gavron said of the quest for the right actress. “We thought we’d get a very iconic actress to play this iconic role, so it was actually Carey Mulligan who suggested Meryl Streep.”

As Ms. Gavron spoke, one’s eyes couldn’t help but wander around the exhibits at the Sewall-Belmont House, a travelogue of the long, hard-fought campaign that took decades of activism and political maneuvering to win women the vote—but it’s a history that is too often glossed over in the schoolbooks. Ms. Gavron said that her education in England barely covered the topic, offering up a Cliff’s Notes history—what she terms the “Mary Poppins” version — of the movement.

“So much surprised me because I hadn’t learned about it in school,” she said of the education that researching the screenplay of “Suffragette” offered thanks to diaries and various other accounts of the movement’s foot soldiers. “They went to prison, they hunger-striked, they were force-fed, which we now know is a form of torture,” she said.

The film doesn’t shy from the lengths to which the activists went in their quest to make the House of Commons stand up and take notice, even to the point of setting off explosives around London — but without harming bystanders.

“A couple of things distinguish it from our associations with terrorism today, Ms. Gavron said of such violent calls to action. “One key is that they never harmed human life, and no one died as a result of their actions except suffragettes themselves. Although they were treading a fine line … the cause is just, and they turned to [violence] after 50 years of peaceful protests.”

Great Britain granted women the vote in 1918. The U.S. followed in 1920. A sobering epilogue to “Suffragette” relates the years in which various other nations extended equal voting to females. (Some countries still do not.) Ms. Gavron said women in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia can now vote in municipal elections, but they must be driven to the polls by a man — and the male head of the home has a “say” in how they cast their ballots.

“So many women don’t have voices in their governments,” she said. “[Around] 22 percent of the world’s governments are female now, which is double what it was in ‘95. It’s still not parity, and in some countries it’s way less.”

While female filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic — and around the world — have made strides in having more representation behind the camera, the sobering numbers reveal it remains overwhelmingly a male-dominated game. To date, one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has won the Oscar for directing a film; only three were ever even nominated before her.

However, Ms. Gavron remains hopeful.

“I’m excited that there’s such momentum in terms of lots of people speaking out about it, people becoming vocal and being very aware of the imbalance,” she said, “and I think that will start shifting.”

Indeed, Ms. Gavron was proud to relate that many of the heads of departments on her “Suffragette” crew were women. She also says she will do “anything I can” to mentor other aspiring female filmmakers as her own career progresses.

“Suffragette” has been positively received in the U.K., and Ms. Gavron hopes the same for its bowing in the U.S. this weekend. Despite all of the progress made over several centuries, Ms. Gavron admonishes audiences to continue demanding positive change.

“Remember to use your vote, remember to speak out and feel empowered,” she said. “I think the main thing for young women is to have confidence and not be afraid to challenge continuing inequalities, because that’s the only way you’ll get change.”

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