This awards season has proven the brilliance of numerous female directors in the British film industry. A standout, and a key one to watch in 2021, is filmmaker Sarah Gavron. Although Gavron’s career has spanned over the past 20 years, it is her recent film Rocks (2019) that has gained her the true notability she deserves. With Rocks being nominated for 14 awards at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs) and winning five, as well as an astounding seven nods at the British Academy Film and Television Awards (BAFTAs), it’s time to shine a focus onto the woman who made it all happen.
Gavron’s early filmmaking work took the form of documentary shorts. This was mostly due to the accessibility of the genre, but also through her attendance at the prestigious Edinburgh School of Art. It was only later on that Gavron found her feet in the world of narrative storytelling, with a keen desire to tell lesser-known stories through a grounded perspective. She attended the National Film and Television School (NFTS) as a young adult, which opened up a wealth of opportunities to explore the impact of personal tales—inspiring the narratives of her later films. According to Gavron in numerous interviews, her inspirations are the likes of Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears: directors with a grounded, kitchen-sink style. These directors aim to push boundaries and open up new dialogues about lesser-known stories, so it is no surprise to see this passion for realism relayed in Gavron’s own filmography.
Pushing Underrepresented Perspectives
From documentaries to narrative features, Gavron’s work has always aimed to tell unique perspectives from near and far. Her short, feel-good documentary Village at the End of the World (2012) brings the unknown to the screen, exploring a small, isolated village in Greenland with only 59 inhabitants and two times the number of sleigh dogs. The film is a positive portrait of those surviving against the odds in the remote location. While lesser-known, Village at the End of the World helped fuel Gavron’s quest to champion people’s underrepresented experiences. The film was nominated for The Grierson Award and won the Margaret Mead Award: two successes that promised a bright future for the filmmaker.
Gavron’s work has moved sporadically between genres. However, what remains a focus is her strength in capturing voices in intimate and powerful ways. Her
first film, the made-for-television This Little Life, was a compelling look into the experiences of a couple who are thrown into parenthood unexpectedly soon when their son is born prematurely. Blending sensitivity with reality is sometimes a tricky task, yet Gavron’s work does this with grace and elegance. The film highlights the difference between what could be considered a ‘normal’ birth and one that isn’t met with such celebration, instead dampened by worry and trauma.
Brick Lane (2007), an adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel of the same name, focused on racial tensions in Britain after 9/11, and the increasingly diverse landscape of Brick Lane in East London. The drama highlights cultural and political differences, as well as the xenophobia present in Britain. What’s more, it showcases Gavron’s talent for exploring stories from strong female perspectives, with protagonist Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) being the film’s powerful lead. The story explores family and personal struggles, something Gavron’s work highlights on many occasions through her ever-growing career. Brick Lane blends optimism and hope with a need for something ‘better’, as Nazneen struggles to stay happy in her arranged marriage and dreams for something different in the heart of London. The film follows a bittersweet affair through the eyes of a woman thrown into a new world.
Gavron’s 2015 historical drama film Suffragette was based on the true trials and tribulations of women in the United Kingdom during the Suffragette movement of the late 1910s to the late 1920s. The film features a star-studded British cast, following the true stories of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) through lead character Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) which are all depicted in an honest and raw way. This rawness is harnessed through all of Gavron’s films, showcasing her ability to draw upon the truth and characterise her storytelling to blend realism and passion with sensitivity.
Championing Female Success
Sarah Gavron’s latest masterpiece is the authentic British drama Rocks. Produced by an all-female crew, the film follows teenager Olushola (Bukky Bakray), nicknamed by her friends as ‘Rocks.’ We trace the struggles Rocks faces after her mother walks out of the house, abandoning her to look after herself and her young brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) while she is only in secondary school. The film oozes authenticity, and the youthful wit of its cast makes it a stand out for the director, drawing in audiences with its quirks and comedic yet hard-hitting screenplay.
Gavron’s main idea for the film drew upon its casting. Gavron and casting director Lucy Pardee aimed to bring together a diverse group of teenagers that truly reflected an average school classroom. Their method included attending after school clubs and community centres to build an honest cast that allowed Rocks to feel personal and passionate in all the right ways. The youthful banter in the film feels natural, without feeling as though the construction of the film’s script pushed the cast in a certain way. They act like real teenagers because they are real teenagers.
British girlhood isn’t often captured with such realistic honesty, yet Gavron’s Rocks is a poignant piece of filmmaking that offers a different East London and female perspective. It provides a much needed breath of fresh air from typical ‘knife crime narratives’ of the area. Instead, Rocks uses its female-led story to push the empowering importance of female friendships to the front of the big screen, offering young female audiences women to identify with and believe in. From its Best Actress award for Bakray at the BIFAs, to her more recent nomination at the 74th BAFTAs, Gavron is pushing unknown female talent to the forefront, championing female success through real storytelling that inspires and invests in real life.
The Future is Bright
With such a shining filmography behind Gavron, we can only hope and expect for her career to continue climbing. Gavron’s keen eye for telling underrepresented stories, alongside bringing unknown and diverse casting calls to the forefront, brings hope for the future of British cinema. Her work is intimate and subtle, while hitting audiences with heartbreaking tales of family, friendship and empowerment. She relies on the strength of fellow women, surrounding herself with talented and passionate individuals who have the same dreams as her: to showcase the underappreciated. Slowly the glass ceiling is breaking, with Gavron leading the push for women in the British film industry.
Words by Katie Evans
This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.
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