Animated conversations

A feminist collective making informative films could take up to two years to make a 10-minute animation when they first started 40 years ago, but things are different now

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Leeds was at the heart of a growing women’s movement when the Leeds Animation Workshop collective formed in the late 1970s. The first Reclaim the Night March was staged in the city in 1977, two years after Peter Sutcliffe carried out the first of 13 murderous sexual assaults in the Leeds and Yorkshire area. The torchlit march demanding women’s rights to walk the streets in safety inspired processions across the country that continued into the 1990s.

“CGI starts to look a bit samey after a while, even if technology is getting more complex.”

As well as taking part in the march, women in the Leeds Animation Workshop set about making a film that expressed their “rage” over the “virtual curfew” imposed on women. Made with British Film Institute funds and detailing experiences of street harassment, its first film, Give Us A Smile, was completed in 1983, two years after Sutcliffe was sentenced to life imprisonment.

“We knew that there were a lot of angry women across the country – it wasn’t just us – and so we put into that film all our experiences of street harassment and stereotyping in the media,” says Terry Wragg, a founding member of LAW. “We wanted to show that this was a spectrum of the same thing – women were being treated as second class citizens in every aspect of life.”

Containing words spoken by police to women who reported rape and comments shouted in the streets, Give Us A Smile, like most of LAW’s 40 films, is a window into women’s concerns. It also reflects LAW’s characteristic approach: presenting material from unconventional or traditionally unrepresented points of view, drawing in and challenging audiences without preaching, and often using gentle humour.

“From the beginning we wanted to make films that meant something,” says Wragg. “Films that had a message and would be accessible, and would be about improving the lot of people in general but women in particular, as well as encouraging people to ask questions and start discussion rather than telling them what to do.”

Involved in feminist politics since the 1960s, when women couldn’t have a bank account without their husband’s say so, and having seen the equal pay and sex discrimination acts passed in the 1970s, Wragg was asked to join a group of women who were making a film about nursery places for the under fives. Although she hadn’t yet had her two children and had no filmmaking experience, Wragg was keen to try her hand at animation and support what was a key demand of the women’s movement.

By the time the eight-minute film promoting day-care provision for the under-fives, Who Needs Nurseries? We Do!, was completed two years later in 1978, Wragg was hooked and, along with some of the other women, decided to carry on making films.

Based in a house in Bayswater Row in Harehills, their earliest films were hand drawn on transparent celluloid sheets – a process so painstaking that a 10-minute film would take up to two years to produce.

“It was incredibly labour intensive, tracing the drawings, then turning the cel over and painting it with special paint,” says Wragg, “It meant sitting painting and painting for long hours. We would have shelves of little blue trousers and red jumpers laid out to dry.”

Later, they used paper cut-outs – less time consuming but still a lot of work. Working as a collective means the women pool their skills in all aspects of the film, from initial ideas and research, through shooting, to promotion and distribution. Each woman takes on a certain job for each film.

The subjects they have covered over the years include racism in schools, fathers in prison, LGBT teenagers, nuclear disarmament, climate change, third world debt and the World Bank.

Focusing on projects that attracted funding beyond media and arts organisations helped LAW survive the early 1990s, which saw the near end of the independent film workshop sector. Funding for films has come from Channel Four, the British Film Institute and Yorkshire Arts, but also Leeds City Council, the European Commission, the Home Office, the NHS and Christian Aid.

They Call Us Maids (above), tells the story of the thousands of women from poor backgrounds, in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, South Asia or Africa, who have to find work abroad to support their families. Believe Me (main image), explores the effects of sexual abuse on young people.

Money left over from the BFI pot funded a film about global trade called Crops and Robbers, while one pointing out the absurdity of the government’s Protect and Survive campaign about nuclear attack was made partly with grants from Yorkshire Arts and CND.

In 1986 the collective, now 12-strong, bought a second house in the same road to accommodate the growing operation. This was sold in 2012, but the original house remains home to a fascinating array of equipment, including a rostrum camera and stacks of boxes filled with cels and cut-outs. In these rooms the story can be traced of a form of animation that, with the advent of computers, fell out of fashion, but is now regaining its appeal.

“Hand drawing is coming back,” says Wragg. “People were saying it’s all dead, but nowadays people are often more visually aware and CGI starts to look a bit samey after a while, even if technology is getting more complex. There’s more interest in hand-drawn work, although less interest in cel work.”

In a similar way, after a lull from the late 1990s and perhaps the belief that gender equality had been achieved, LAW’s work is attracting new audiences, particularly among young women.

“There was a time when young people thought our more hard-hitting political stuff was old fashioned, but now they are into it again,” says Wragg. “It’s nice in a way, but sad as well – a sign that the same problems persist.”

This sense that women continue to face age-old problems is reflected in the popularity of a film about the glass ceiling, excerpts of which were included in BBC series Breaking Glass. Narrated by Alan Bennett, Through the Glass Ceiling (1994) was the first of three about Princess Ella, who in No Offence (1996) has become Queen and has to deal with sexual harassment in her castle. In Working With Care (1999), she struggles with the realities of caring for an ageing fairy godmother and two sick children while Prince Charming is away.

“People were saying I can’t believe they were made so long ago because they still seem so relevant today,” says Wragg. A fourth fairytale film, Did I Say Hairdressing? I Meant Astrophysics (1998), is about equal opportunities in science, technology, engineering and maths. Last year the film won the audience favourite award at London Feminist Film Festival.

Most recently, the LAW tackled domestic slavery in an award-winning film made with the Voice of Domestic Workers. The film highlights the experiences of women from the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Africa and Indonesia who are helped to escape while accompanying their employers to the UK. During a screening at the Leeds International Film Festival, Wragg got a call to say that a domestic worker in the north of England needed her help to escape such a situation.

“So her first experience of life as a free woman was to come to the Hyde Park Picture House and watch our film.”

Wragg and fellow member Jo Dunn are working on creating an archive of LAW’s work. They also run workshops in basic animation techniques for community groups. Looking ahead, they hope to attract new, younger recruits.

“A properly researched, broadcast-quality animated film of 10 minutes or so is really quite a big undertaking. We might need a bit more person power,” says Wragg, who is approaching 70, throwing down the gauntlet to a younger generation to take up the meticulous work of animation and discover its potential in the struggle for change.

The fairer six

Who Needs Nurseries? We Do! (1978, 11 minutes)
A story told from the perspective of four-year-old Tracy who, feeling hemmed in by family life, runs away and goes to a meeting of children presided over by three “chairbabies”. Here they discuss their problems arising from a lack of nursery places, and decide to take action.

Pretend You’ll Survive (1981, 9 minutes)
A response to the information given out by the government telling people how to Protect and Survive, it tells the story of one woman and her nuclear nightmares and exposes the absurdity of civil defence in the face of nuclear weapons.

Crops and Robbers (1986, 15 minutes)
Attempts to tell the history of the world in 15 minutes, bringing complex issues to life through a combination of cartoon and live action. As crops contend with robbers in animated sequences, a young shop assistant in a supermarket goes round the world, discovering the links between past and present, international and local events, how they relate to world hunger and what she can do about it.

Alice in Wasteland (1991, 12 minutes)
Wondering where things go when they are thrown away, Alice’s adventures uncover some horrifying secrets about landfill sites, toxic waste dumps, deforestation, acid rain, ozone destruction and their impact on the natural environment.

Beyond Belief (2003, 13 minutes)
A short animated film looking at the impact of child sexual abuse on families, and at how parents and carers can support children who have been abused. Narrated by Muriel Gray.

Teenage Grief (2007, 13 minutes)
Narrated by Lenny Henry, the film contains six separate episodes about young people, from a wide range of backgrounds, facing different kinds of bereavement.

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