On a glorious spring day in Manhattan, the horses on Central Park South wait for tourists, and Sarah Gavron sets out to walk to Lincoln Centre. She has been having brunch with Carey Mulligan, the star of her new film “Suffragette”, and is now on her way to check the grading of a snippet of footage that will be screened at Women in the World, an annual forum for empowering stories. It feels like the right setting for a first glimpse of “Suffragette”, and a profile-raising moment for Gavron, whose only other feature film, “Brick Lane”, was released eight years ago, when she was 37.
“This time, it’s a big one,” says Tessa Ross, her executive producer, who is a powerhouse of British independent film-making. “Sarah has effortlessly managed to do something very unusual, which is to go deep inside a character and also to build a world of scale, of history.”
As Gavron walks along, chatting away, it feels as though I’ve known her for years. I see the warmth and empathy in her huge brown eyes, which, like the heavy brows and olive complexion, show no trace of make-up. It’s the kind of natural beauty that comes mostly from within, and its lack of artifice also happens to be the hallmark of Gavron’s films.
At 27, after graduating with a degree in English from York University, completing an MA in film-making at Edinburgh College of Art, and spending three years working in the BBC’s documentary department, she enrolled on the feature-film directing course at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. Gavron had never been a movie buff – “I hadn’t heard of Bergman or Tarkovsky until I went to Edinburgh” – but in her teens she had become interested in drama and art, and found that her ideas were translating more and more into moving images. “I intended to apply for the documentary course, because I had experience there, but then one night I woke up and thought, ‘I have to do fiction’.”
The selection process was testing, with 20 applicants for each discipline – design, producing, cinematography, screenwriting – whittled down, over two weeks of observation, to five. Once accepted, the students started crewing up together to make their first films. “They all arrive with their heads full of nonsense and slowly they learn,” says the director Stephen Frears, one of Gavron’s teachers and an important influence. “Sarah learnt faster than anyone else.” For her, film school was a revelation, allowing her to experiment, explore ideas, go wrong. “You had to learn to expose your work and accept the fact that the other students and the teachers would be telling you the truth. You couldn’t get away with anything. Jane Campion [director of ‘The Piano’] said recently that women directors need to put on their armour and get used to being judged. I think that’s vital. It’s what film school taught me – how to be robust about criticism.”
It also encouraged Gavron to forge her own style. Her background in documentaries was essential training for observing life rather than studying classic films or trying to emulate other directors. She gained the confidence to be true to herself, to make films defined by the integrity of her own character. “She makes things real,” Carey Mulligan told me.
“What Sarah’s good at,” Stephen Frears adds, “is being intelligent and being human. She knows that what’s most important is telling a good story and getting inside the people in that story.” Of the seven shorts Gavron completed over the three-year course, one made a particular impression on him. “It was about three generations of women, and I slowly worked out that it had to be autobiographical.”
At Women in the World, the four-minute clip of “Suffragette” is the prelude to a panel discussion, “Story Power: Three Great Women of Film”, moderated by the talk-show satirist Jon Stewart. On stage with him are Ava DuVernay, whose “Selma” was on the shortlist for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, the documentary-maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, and Meryl Streep, who plays a small but vital role in “Suffragette” as Emmeline Pankhurst. “I’m surprised to see you take on an accent,” Stewart teases Streep, after showing the pivotal scene in which Pankhurst, forced into hiding by the police, gives an emotive speech to her followers. Years of peaceful marches have achieved nothing, she says; promises for debate and reform have been endlessly broken, and the time has come for a change of tactics. The only way to get the attention of politicians, the public and the press is to resort to militant action.
Streep is clever casting: she gives the messianic Mrs Pankhurst a megastar aura that thrills the crowd. Carey Mulligan’s Maud, a young working-class wife and mother, has the briefest encounter with Streep’s Pankhurst, but it’s life-changing. She takes Pankhurst’s exhortation, “Don’t give up the fight!” as a personal call to arms. The clip highlights the new ground that “Suffragette” breaks: this is an action film that, just for once, has women at its centre.
It shows the suffragettes not as tame stereotypes parading the streets with banners, but as amazons who had to endure police brutality and break taboos in order to be heard. “So few people know what really went on – the extremes of the true story,” Gavron says. “They committed arson, bombed buildings, and they were absolutely fearless for themselves. I mean, do you know anyone in your circle who’d go on hunger strike and be force-fed for a cause?”
Today, Saudi Arabia is the only country left in the world where men have the vote and women don’t, but it’s an issue that still feels close. Streep speaks of her grandmother who was forbidden to vote in school-board elections and so had to lobby her grandfather to represent her view. Gavron’s own grandfather considered women to be second-class citizens and showed it in his dealings with his daughter, her mother. “When she was 15, he said there was no point in her continuing her education, but she defied him. At that moment she realised something was very wrong, and she carried that sense of injustice into her adult life.”
“Suffragette” is a film that needed to be made, and its timing could hardly be better. It is riding a new wave of feminism, which, as Gavron says, “feels fresh again”. Her 14-year-old niece, who is at a mixed comprehensive school in London, told her that they’d set up a lunchtime debating society where boys as well as girls go to discuss gender issues. Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism Project and Caroline Criado-Perez’s Week Woman encourage women to speak out about harassment and prejudice, reaching hundreds of thousands of people through social media. Both were included in the British honours list in June, yet both have also been on the receiving end of rape and death threats from Twitter trolls. “The backlash is almost more shocking than anything else,” Gavron says, “because it shows what we’re up against. It was the same with the suffragettes. It was only when Rebecca West heard what was being said against them that she realised the scale of the problem.”
In Gavron’s own profession, change has been slow to come. There may not be the lurking harassment that prevailed in the 1970s when, as the actress Lesley-Anne Down put it, “the entire male film industry [should] have been in jail for a minimum of 12 years,” but discrimination is still the norm. Not one of the nine Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 2014 had a female protagonist, and every year, on average, only a bleak 4% to 12% of films are directed by women. “There are multiple reasons why,” says Gavron. “It’s hard for us to walk comfortably into such a masculine world, and there are very few role models. But it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. I really believe that more women directing will encourage many others.”
Suddenly, too, women in the industry have become clamorous. Meryl Streep has written to every member of Congress urging them to support the equal-rights amendment that was shelved in the 1970s. Patricia Arquette used her Oscar acceptance speech to demand equal pay, and the momentum is spreading to the young generation, with Kristen Stewart calling Hollywood “disgustingly sexist”. To Ava DuVernay, a woman making a movie is a radical act in itself, and Gavron agrees, saying that the way earlier directors broke into a male stronghold gave her the confidence to consider film as a career. “I had ideas for films, but it didn’t occur to me that I could make them, until I saw the work of Jane Campion and then Mira Nair. But it still took a while before I dared even tell anyone – let alone put myself forward as a director.”
The short autobiographical film that so impressed Stephen Frears was called “Hidden Lives”. It began with the story of Gavron’s grandmother, who died just before Sarah went to film school. Elizabet Horstmeyer had grown up in Berlin, where both her parents were teachers. As a tall, slender 17-year-old, she was chosen to lead the dance troupe at the opening ceremony of Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, but then forbidden to appear because her Jewish ancestry had been uncovered. She became a pariah at school, forced to stand at the back of the assembly hall with her nose pressed against a swastika. Her parents were advised to get her out of Germany, so they sent her alone to England where, after working as a cleaner and training as a nurse, she eventually met a man in his 50s, a Labour Exchange employee named Coates, whose offer of help with immigration papers was conditional on her becoming his girlfriend with the promise of marriage.
She’d been told by her mother that Englishmen were gentlemen, only to find out later that her lover had a wife and six children. By then, aged 22, she was pregnant. “Imagine, she was German, Jewish and had an illegitimate daughter,” Gavron says. “She changed her name to Jennifer Coates, and spent much of her life hiding her origins. I knew my grandmother’s story, and I was very close to her. She was a woman who had so many regrets, and I always felt that I was leading the life she had lost.”
The daughter was Sarah’s mother, Nicky, who was raised in a Worcester boarding house where her father had set them up. The second scene of “Hidden Lives” focused on what it was like for a young girl to be living among strangers while constantly aware that she had to keep her mother’s identity a secret. The strain was constricting, but the subterfuge and repression surely helped form the dynamo Nicky Gavron became – first as a local councillor in the London borough of Haringey, then the deputy mayor of London under Ken Livingstone. “My mother was told never to stand out because it would draw attention to her German-Jewish roots,” Sarah says. “So in a way I think she expressed herself by speaking out on behalf of other people.”
Frears remembers the mother who appears in the film’s third scene as “a bolshie political figure neglecting her daughter”, but Gavron, who based the character of the teenager on herself, insists this wasn’t the reality. “It was frustrating at times, because I wanted attention and she wasn’t always able to give it, but watching her as a working mother was inspiring. She was breaking the mould by going into the very male world of politics – 46 men to 13 women on Haringey council – and I’m sure if she’d been around in the 1900s she’d have been a suffragette. Looking back, it was an upbringing of fantastic opportunity. My sister and I went after school every day to the community centre she’d helped establish: we’d sit and watch Indian dancing and African drummers, and join in with the drama club and all the local events.”
Around the same time, her parents split up. Bob Gavron, a publishing tycoon and Labour peer, had been a struggling businessman and widower when he married Nicky Coates. His first wife, Hannah, had killed herself at the age of 29, in circumstances strikingly similar to the death of Sylvia Plath, and he needed both a mother for his two small boys and a partner who was his intellectual equal. He found her in Nicky, another forceful, attractive young woman in her early 20s. The Gavrons had two daughters together, Jess and Sarah, who looked on their half-brothers, Simon and Jeremy, as natural siblings. They were a close-knit family and Bob and Nicky had a loving marriage, which lasted surprisingly long, considering their differences. “My mother was a bohemian and my father much more conventional. She’d open our door to anyone who needed shelter, and so there were always these eclectic characters staying in the house. My father claimed he once found an elderly man in the bathroom who was wearing his shirt and using his toothbrush! He was a tolerant man but he liked his privacy.”
Bob Gavron eventually began a relationship with Kate Gardiner, who became his third wife. The boys left home for university, and suddenly “all the male energy in the air had gone,” Gavron says. “We became a house of women through my teens and that helped shape me too.” What felt at the time like a huge upheaval eventually righted itself, leaving her with positive memories of being the daughter of powerful parents, both excellent, she says, at building their children’s confidence. “They made us feel that anything was possible.”
Soon after graduating Sarah Gavron started a family of her own. At film school a Danish cinematography student, David Katznelson, asked to work on “Hidden Lives”, and he and Gavron became firm friends. “David’s father is of Russian-Jewish descent, like my father, so we discovered a lot of family connections.” He shot her graduation film and they collaborated again on “This Little Life”, her first long film. By now, they were a couple. They married at the beginning of 2004 and their daughter Lily was born that spring.
“This Little Life”, based on an autobiographical book by Rosemary Kay, was an 85-minute drama shown on BBC2 in 2003. It had been offered to Gavron by the then head of BBC Films, David Thompson, who had seen and admired her shorts, and it was the film that launched her as a director. Shot mostly within a neonatal intensive-care unit, it focuses on a young couple whose first baby is born 17 weeks prematurely – tiny enough to fit in the palm of a hand. Gavron warned me not to watch the DVD unless I was feeling strong, and she was right. You live every second of what the parents are going through, and yet the film is uplifting as well as harrowing. As the mother, Kate Ashfield is extraordinary, and at times Katznelson’s camera finds a Kate Moss beauty in her face.
“She’s Very serious,” says Tessa Ross. “Emotionally very intelligent. I feel like I’m giving her a school report…”
The film opened doors for Gavron: she was signed up by the Hollywood agency WME, won a BAFTA for best new director, and was awarded best debut feature when the film was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. Tessa Ross, who was running BBC Films’ main competitor, Film4, was not surprised. “Work of that quality happens very rarely. It was by a film-maker who felt every detail; there was nothing forced or sentimental or glossed over. To get inside character in a filmic way is a very unusual gift, and Sarah has that gift. She’s fine in the best sense of the word – she has incredibly good taste along with a rigorous intellect. Very serious. Emotionally very intelligent. I feel like I’m giving her a school report, but she really is an exceptional woman.”
“This Little Life” led to “Brick Lane”, a feature film distilling Monica Ali’s acclaimed first novel. It anticipates “Suffragette” in being a story of a woman discovering her independence, and it’s also an echo of Gavron’s family history. “I couldn’t help connecting with the immigrant girl who’s alone in England with a much older man and whose daughter is outspoken and fits in.” Concentrating on the character of Nazneen (played with gentle intelligence by Tannishtha Chatterjee), the film strips away the book’s rich layers and vibrant characters – the cause of some disappointment. “Yes, it polarised people, which is confusing when you’re a director. You don’t quite know how to interpret the feedback.” It’s been a decade since I read “Brick Lane”, and I didn’t see the film when it came out, so I watched the DVD with few expectations, and I loved it. It slowly draws you in and holds you, wrenching the heart with its quiet emotional power. It may not have been a box-office hit, but it has a lasting beauty. For Tessa Ross, “it was a film that convinced me that Sarah should make her next one.”
First, Gavron took a long break. She was pregnant with her second child, and then came a sudden blow. In 2005, Simon Gavron suffered a fatal heart attack while jogging to his health club. A publisher, aged 46, he left a wife and three sons. “It was so shocking. He was so young and so healthy. My sister kept saying, ‘It must have been a drive-by shooting; I mean, how can he just vanish? It’s impossible.’ It takes years to recover from something like that, and we all had to support each other. When you make a film you disappear, so I badly wanted time with my family, and time to grieve Simon.”
For her other brother, Jeremy, the tragedy had a cataclysmic effect, unlocking an older, buried grief for his mother. Being a writer, his way of mourning was to begin a gradual process of putting his feelings into words. The result, to be published in November, is a remarkable memoir, “A Woman on the Edge of Time”. A painstaking quest for information about Hannah Gavron and why she took her own life, his mosaic reveals an intriguingly complex character and pioneering young feminist whose book “The Captive Wife” voiced opinions that were way ahead of her time. “It was a discovery for Jeremy and a discovery for me,” Sarah says. “I knew my brothers had had another mother, but I hadn’t known any of the details. Reading it was obviously an emotional experience, but objectively it was very interesting too, because it’s much more than a memoir, it’s a real tapestry of bigger themes – early feminism, friendship, abuse, family secrets, academia in the 1960s. And I found I could relate to Hannah as a mother with a career. She was fighting for a new way of living, and it was her generation that paved the way for mine.”
It’s a warm June day when I next see Gavron, almost as sunny inside her open-plan house as it is outside. She lives in an affluent, artistic enclave in north London where near neighbours include the novelist Julian Barnes and the screenwriter Jeremy Brock, but this is conspicuously a family home, with crates of toys and a rabbit hutch in the living room. The family have another life in Copenhagen, where they stay in the room Katznelson kept free in a flat he rents out. “David is still very connected to the city,” Gavron says, “the kids speak Danish, and I feel really at home with his friends.”
Katznelson is in Canada for an eight-week television shoot with Kevin Macdonald (director of “The Last King of Scotland”), so Gavron is holding the fort, which hasn’t been easy. Her son Noah has severe asthma and in early May he suffered an attack. It was the night before we were due to meet, and she kept me posted by e-mail.
(May 6th, 13.35) “Just wanted to let you know that Noah is unwell again. I am sitting in A&E with him now, hoping that the medicine they have given him will do the job and we can go home…But tomorrow might be tricky.”
(May 6th, 16.08) “Noah definitely responded to the meds. I am having to monitor him closely – but we are home! I have baby-sitting lined up tonight as I was supposed to be going to the Film4 party. I might dare to go for an hour…Tomorrow may be OK to meet, but I still think I should confirm in the morning as I will only know if I can leave him once I see how he is through the night.”
(May 7th, 00.01) “Noah has got much worse and now we are in hospital and he has been admitted so I definitely won’t be able to do tomorrow’s meeting.”
The 7th was the night of the general election, which gave Gavron some comfort as she dozed on and off in a reclining chair by Noah’s side. “I knew that almost everyone else was up that night watching the results. It was an amazing election, although I have to say I was horrified by the outcome.” Noah soon recovered, but Gavron cancelled again because Brompton Hospital had arranged for her to spend the day with consultants who were recommending a change of medication. A month later, with Noah’s health stabilised and “all looking good”, Gavron and I are sitting at her kitchen table, having a light lunch. I ask what would have happened if Noah’s hospital admission had coincided with, say, Meryl Streep’s two days of filming. “David would have taken over. Otherwise it would be impossible. The only way I’ve been able to handle having children and making films is because of our partnership. We’ve found a way of working where we just take turns. Film-making is so all-absorbing, you need to fit life around it. I’ve had to create space to have the kids and be with them when they were very young.”
When Lily was four and Noah just five months, Gavron decided to do something manageable that also involved Katznelson. They settled on the idea of a documentary about climate change, a subject important to them both. Nicky Gavron had led London’s response to climate change, creating the C40 summit, and Gavron’s memories of her mother “sitting round the kitchen table discussing the issue years before anyone else ever mentioned it” fed into her conversations with Katznelson. He’d always been fascinated by Greenland, having hero-worshipped the polar explorer Knud Rasmussen as a child, and was something of an adventurer himself. “He went on a five-week expedition walking across the inland ice, and came back saying that we should all go to Greenland as a family.” They set out to find a village affected not only by the melting ice, but also by the exodus of islanders to cities where they could find work. They chose Niaqornat, a remote settlement on the edge of north-west Greenland, with 59 inhabitants. They called it “The Village at the End of the Earth”.
With its green, red, blue and white Lego-like houses dotted round an azure cove, its lumpy barren hills in the foreground and looming fins of ice in the bay beyond, Niaqornat is a cinematographer’s dream. There are washing lines with polar bearskins hanging beside children’s T-shirts, drying garlands of salted fish, scavenging wild dogs and a sewage collector – “the village clock” – who wheels his barrel of slops from house to house. But what began as a portrait of a community struggling to survive evolved into a delicate drama centring on Lars Kristian Kruse, an illegitimate 16-year-old boy, brought up by his grandparents because his mother was too young to take care of him.
Gavron’s instinct for narrative homed in on the fact that Lars sees Karl Kristian Kruse, his father and the village’s chief hunter, every day of his life, but his father refuses to acknowledge him. “I tried to talk to him once without success…It’s hard. It’s emotional,” Lars says, his little choked snuffle trying and failing to make light of it. What started as a climate-change documentary shifted its focus. “It struck me that there was a human story to be told,” Gavron says. “And it grew as we were there.”
With seed money from Film4 to start development, they made six long trips to Greenland over a period of two years, travelling by plane and two helicopters. They were shown round on their first visit by the sewage collector, who they thought must be the local mayor because he spoke English. Accommodation was basic. They slept on the floor of a deserted hut which had a bucket toilet and no running water; fresh fruit and vegetables were available only with the fortnightly arrival of the ship; the helicopter came once a week, and there was no other way of leaving the island. “Looking back, it was pretty reckless of us to have taken two small children there. If the weather was bad, the helicopter wouldn’t arrive for three weeks, and you’d be stuck. But Lily joined in at the school and ran around with the kids, and I was breastfeeding Noah, which made it easier. He was mostly in a sling on my stomach, and when we started shooting and I was in charge of sound, he’d suddenly go ‘Waaaaahhhhh!’ and we’d have to stop. Before we did the documentary, David had been filming ‘Game of Thrones’ with huge crews and cranes, so the contrast couldn’t have been more extreme. For me it was very freeing, but all the time I was thinking, ‘fiction, fiction’…”
It was Ross who urged Gavron not to wait any longer. She hadn’t pressurised her before, understanding her decision to commit to her family. “You can make work into your 80s,” Ross says, “but your children grow up. Being at Film4 had allowed me to say, ‘I don’t mind if you make a film this year or next year – I’ll back you whatever.’ I feel that it’s crucial to nurture female voices at an early stage of their careers. Women need the confidence to believe they have a place in this commercially driven, male-dominated industry, which means you have to support them consistently – while they’re having children, while they’re developing other projects. I knew that Sarah, having made one feature film, wasn’t prepared to put herself out there without it being absolutely what she wanted to do. But there’s a moment when you say, ‘You’ve got to jump now.’ It’s the moment you believe it’s now or never.”
“I knew it was a vital piece of women’s history that had been lost, and I was passionate to show it in all its complexity, and with all its shocking detail”
“Suffragette” was one of several projects that Gavron was developing and, encouraged by Ross, she decided this was the one to go for. “I knew it was a vital piece of women’s history that had been lost, and I was passionate to show it in all its complexity, and with all its shocking detail.” The process took six years. There was the historical and political backdrop to get right, and different approaches to building the main character. The screenwriter Abi Morgan, renowned for her ability to produce multiple drafts each fresher than the last, was “fearless about changing and changing and changing”, Ross says. It became virtually an all-female team: Ruby Films’ Alison Owen and Faye Ward were the producers; the designers of costume, set and make-up were all women, as were other key members of the cast – Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter and Romola Garai. The men in “Suffragette” (Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Samuel West) play the supporting roles. “There was a great sense of camaraderie on set,” Gavron says. “I think the subject matter informed the atmosphere: we all knew it was a story that had never been told, and one to which we had to do justice.”
As indeed they have. While scrupulously true to its period, “Suffragette” challenges all the conventions of costume drama. It feels urgent, unflinching and real: the cast wear virtually no make-up and their costumes are not costumes, but actual used clothes from the period. “I didn’t want the audience to watch through a proscenium arch, so to speak. These women were a century ahead of their time – they even looked it in how they dressed and what they said. And this modern aesthetic had to be reflected in the work of all departments. Everyone wanted the same thing, and we were in constant dialogue about what felt emotionally truthful when it came to staging and performance.”
Few young actresses achieve this to greater effect than Carey Mulligan. She was performing on Broadway in David Hare’s “Skylight” when Gavron and I were in New York, and amazed us both with her naturalness on stage. “In ‘Suffragette’, Carey communicates so much through subtle, shifting responses which the camera catches,” Gavron says, “but her performance in ‘Skylight’ was just as cinematic. She was managing to convey these unspoken emotions right across the auditorium.”
The two women’s strengths and beliefs are strikingly similar. Gavron: “I try to take away all veneer, so that there’s no barrier to becoming immersed in the story. I’d rather show actors doing things in an imperfect way than see them Perform. Carey has such good instincts about what’s truthful and what’s not, and she keeps on going until she gets there.” Mulligan: “You can’t tell the story about these events and try to beautify or Hollywoodise it. Sarah has an intelligence that doesn’t get in the way – that doesn’t intellectualise. She basically understands about getting to the truth and stripping away all the Acting.”
Mulligan told me that in the last five years she’d been in trouble with her agent for signing up for projects too quickly, but that within ten minutes of first talking to Gavron, she was texting under the table, “I’ve got to do this!” She threw herself into expanding her “basic school version of the suffragettes” by reading prison diaries and memoirs from which she extracted quotes, posting scraps of paper all over her dressing-room. “Making ‘Suffragette’ was the best working experience I’ve ever had. Completely the happiest time. Everything was a conversation, everything you suggested was listened to. And there was a real excitement as well.”
Mulligan’s extreme diligence dissolves into total effortlessness on screen. She so fully inhabits the character of Maud that you find yourself understanding her radicalisation and sympathising with the notion of taking politics to the absolute limit to achieve a goal. Today this has an extra, dangerous resonance; another reason why “Suffragette” feels so relevant. “The story seems to have become more timely,” Gavron says. “World events have echoed it, like the challenging of repression by a new generation of activists, from Malala to Pussy Riot. It’s no longer just a fascinating piece of history – it’s living and breathing now.”
Suffragette opens the London Film Festival, Oct 7th; in British cinemas, Oct 30th. Women in the World: London Sarah Gavron, Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep talk to Simon Schama, Oct 8th, Cadogan Hall. A Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron is published by Scribe, Nov 5th