Female filmmakers of the Second World War

29th January 2024

© IWM HU 65393 Amateur film maker Rosie Newman using her Cine Kodak Model K 16mm film camera.

The women who pioneered cinema in the Second World War

Women played a significant part in the early decades of British documentary filmmaking. These women are often left uncredited and unrecognised but their contributions shaped documentary films into what they are today.

With decades of experience advising on the content of IWM's film collections, Senior Curators Fiona Kelly and Jane Fish were called on to provide the commentary for an episode on IWM's YouTube channel, examining pioneering female filmmakers in wartime. 

Female filmmakers in IWM's collection

The Grierson name is synonymous with the British documentary story. Rarely, however, is Ruby Grierson the focal point of that attention. As well as being the sister to John Grierson 'the father of documentary film', she directed a series of successful short films for the Ministry of Information, including a public information film advocating the advantages of eating cheese over meat.

Amateur film-maker Rosie Newman was able to use her high society contacts to secure extraordinary civilian access to the training exercises of the armed forces and the childhood home of the young Princess Elizabeth. She also captured the bomb damage of the London Blitz in vibrant Kodachrome. Colour film was not easy to obtain in wartime conditions, and official films were black and white. Newman was able to continue to shoot in colour, using stock found for her through American and Canadian diplomatic contacts.

Margaret Thompson made Making a Compost Heap for the Ministry of Agriculture as part of the Dig for Victory campaign. The short film is exactly as the title says, guiding the viewer, who it was assumed knew little about gardening, through the process of making compost. Simple and effective, it's comparable to the ‘how to’ videos in YouTube tutorials.

It was standard practice for an instructional director to be involved in all stages of production, so Thomson liaised with advisors, wrote the script, controlled the budget, organised the shooting, directed the small crew and assisted in post-production.*

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The women who pioneered cinema in the Second World War

Contact the licensing team for further information and help with archive research.

IWM has two YouTube channels; the IWM channel focuses on military topics and content based around the Museum's collection items. The recently launched IWM: Conflict Explained channel looks more at the social history aspects of conflict, including War Photography, John Singer Sargent's 'Gassed', and Oppenheimer. The channel has also published 37 YouTube Shorts. 

*BFI Screenonline: Making a Compost Heap (1941)