Spotlight: Jenny Gilbertson
When I look back on the journey, it is with a real sense of high adventure – an adventure that none of us may ever have a chance to have again.
The careers of women often take a different shape to those of men. For the female filmmaker, the structural forces that silently shape all our lives can be traced in slow starts, long hiatuses, abrupt absences. In the past (and still, often, in the present) women have found nascent careers impeded or stalled by an institutional sexism that shows itself through forbidding gatekeepers, reluctant funders and hostility towards working parents. For this reason, many promising female talents “disappear” at a crucial mid-point of their career. Hearteningly though, some do find their way back, forging a successful Second Act. And there are few more inspiring Second Act stories, than that of Jenny Gilbertson.
Born in 1902, Jenny Gilbertson (née Brown) grew up in Glasgow. In comfortable, middle-class surroundings, Jenny’s mother raised her daughter to become a sedate, respectable society woman, “to stay home, drive the car, play golf and dust the legs of the dining room table.” But that’s not what Jenny did. She fought to go to Glasgow University, and then to train as a journalist in London. There she saw her first film, a documentary about Loch Lomond. Soon after Jenny acquired a 16mm camera and taught herself to use it, filming squirrels in the park and barges on the Thames to perfect her technique.
As a child, Jenny had holidayed with her family on Shetland, the most northerly point of Britain, and fell in love with the landscape. In 1931 she returned, new camera in hand, and was once again captivated.
Jenny’s first Shetland film, A Crofters Life (1931) establishes her style immediately - sharply observant, insatiably curious. Following a year in the life of the islanders, the film tenderly details the hard work and traditional skills that kept Shetland running – crofting, potato planting and weaving. Women and children feature as prominently as men, and a kind of parity in labour is depicted, although Jenny never shies away from the toughness of such a life. She emphasises the beauty in tradition, but she doesn’t over-romanticise. She shows, frankly, that this life survives partly through lack of options – an intertitle states starkly that “every woman in Shetland knits, for it is one of the few ways they can make money.”
A Crofters Life was followed by a series of anthropological films set on the Shetland Islands, which Jenny wrote, shot and edited virtually single handedly. Many focus on tradition, preserving a vanishing heritage that might have been lost forever if it weren’t for Jenny’s passion and skill. Her quiet, unobtrusive approach and likable manner allowed her to overcome her outsider status and chart the length and breadth of the islands. In the 1930s, Jenny’s camera roamed from the remote lighthouse Muckle Flugga to the relative bustle of the capital Lerwick, from peat-cutters to wool-spinners to herring-gutters. Her empathetic eye also extends to Shetland’s distinctive wildlife and startling landscape. She captures wonderfully the lives of seabirds, the eider ducks, guillemots and kittiwakes, who nest beneath jutting rock and crashing waves on the islands’ crags.
Jenny’s love of Shetland and its people is palpable through her lens, even decades later. A Rugged Isle (1933), is a story documentary, which uses a loose plot – about a young couple considering emigrating to Australia – to depict the life of a crofting family, fishing, farming and working the land. Local man John Gilbertson built the film’s sets and starred as the central character alongside his real-life mother, sister and father. Soon after shooting, Jenny and John married, and her ties to the islands became permanent. The two began married life as an active filmmaking couple. In 1934 Jenny embarked with her films on a tour of Canada and Johnny joined her, even working as cameraman on Prairie Winter (1935), an account of the harsh Saskatchewan winter which Jenny co-directed with Canadian Evelyn Spice-Cherry. On their return to Britain the couple toured the country with their new baby, travelling in a car packed with film reels.
The outbreak of war in 1939, put filmmaking on pause. Back on Shetland, Jenny now had two daughters, and the demands of family life and pressure of making ends meet began to take its toll. She retrained as a teacher, and that pause became a long hiatus. Decades passed. Jenny’s filmmaking life had disappeared from view.
In 1967, Johnny suddenly died. The filmmaking urge which had lain dormant began to reawaken in the newly widowed and retired Jenny. After decades of silence she picked up her camera again. In the 1970s, now in her late sixties, Jenny travelled to the Arctic Circle, a place she was to return to throughout the next decade of her life. Here she made a series of films documenting Inuit life, which were broadcast on Canadian television and later the BBC.She embarked on several extended trips to make these films, and at one point lived for 13-months in a village 900 miles north of the Arctic Circle to make Jenny’s Arctic Diary (1984), which charts a year in the life of one Inuit community. Jenny’s Second Act had begun.
Decades before Jenny had found herself pulled, irresistibly and intuitively, to an isolated Scottish archipelago. Now, as she entered her 70s, Jenny felt that pull again, to remote and frozen Canada. As on Shetland, Jenny worked with furious independence, shooting, directing and writing almost entirely by herself. And like her previous work, it is the instinctive warmth that Jenny brings to her documentaries that makes them so special.
In Jenny’s Dog Team Journey (1975), the filmmaker accompanies an Inuit family – two men, a woman and her 3-month-old baby – on a two-week 350-mile journey by dog drawn sledge across the snowy desert. Along the way, Jenny charts the bleakness and beauty of the landscape, and records the skills of her companions as they hunt caribou and build igloos. But she also reflects on the particular experiences of baby Priscilla-Ann and her mother Terri, as they struggle with exhaustion (“the baby’s tears have to be wiped away before they freeze”) and other practicalities (“changing a nappy is quite a problem in 30-below”). Tradition and modernity collide. Jenny’s camera lingers on Terri’s painted nails as she explains that the mother is a professional woman herself, a trained teacher. She marvels at the practicalities of the Inuit woman’s fur outfit, complete with a convenient pouch for the baby. But she also mentions in passing that “before dogs were used, it was women that pulled the sleds.”
Although she never dominates, Jenny is by now a character in her own films. She appears briefly at the start of Dog Team Journey, a 75-year old in a fluffy hood with a lilting Scottish accent, who offers a few words of introduction before riding off on a Ski-Doo into the snow. Despite her cosy appearance, we are left with no doubt that this is a woman with a core of steel. We see her travelling for 26 continuous hours in freezing temperatures, filming all the way. She pauses to reload her camera in an igloo which then collapses on her (when Jenny emerges unhurt, her Inuit companions collapse in hysterical laughter). “The wind is so strong now, that I can’t hold my camera steady” she explains, across images of a blistering ice-storm. It’s hard however, to detect much of a shake in the footage; Jenny’s 16mm captures perfectly the pale pink light bouncing off the snow dunes that unroll into infinite emptiness.
Despite dropping out of the industry for 30 years, Jenny managed to make 29 films across her career, before her death in 1990. Her life is a remarkable Second Act story, and a spirited rebuke to an ageist industry. She made arguably her finest films, in her mid-70s. Her story inspires, heartens and gives hope to so many, those who might have made films in the past, those who might make films in the future. Where there is talent, determination and true grit, there is a film, as yet unborn, waiting to be made.
Barbara Evans. “Jenny Gilbertson.” Women Film Pioneers.
Shona Main. “Jenny Gilbertson.” Shona Main Wordpress.
Jenny Brownrig. “The Event Which is in Front of Her Eyes.” The Drouth.
Anne Wade. “Jenny Gilbertson Biography”. Moving Image Archive at the National Library of Scotland.