Social realism films portray women’s experiences

July 13, 2014

I have always had a solitary side to myself. I usually really enjoy my own company. Back almost 20 years ago, in my Winnipeg days, I really enjoyed going to watch National Film Board (NFB) releases at a little boutique cinema on Main St. south close to The Forks, the trendy indoor market where the historic Red River meets the Assiniboine River. I usually went by myself and my world opened up a bit more to someone and/or something I had never known about before.

When conservative people like our current Prime Minister Harper cut money back on institutions, like the NFB and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), that showcase who we are to ourselves, they are telling us not to think, not grow, not to revel in who we are. They close the openings

This article is based on one of these openings. (By the way, nowadays, you can go to the NFB website, click on and watch many NFB films online. So there, Prime Minister Harper.)

The Manitoba Women’s Newspaper
June 1980

Social realism films portray women’s experiences
by Tanya Lester

“Social Realism is alive and well and living at the National Film Board,” the invitation read.

“That’s nice,” I said to myself. “But, what is social realism?”

No doubt having foreseen a possible problem, Helen K. Wright, who presented the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada selections, included a definition of the term at the beginning of both the April 18 and 19 showing held at the Planetarium.

Social realism, it turns out, is art which reflects working people and their way of life. Its artist can identify with his or her ‘subject’ because he or she is also struggling to achieve a better world through art. Without aloofness or condescension, the social realism artist can paint, film, or write about working people with a kindred knowledge of inequalities being faced by that class while portraying its victories and temporary defeats.

For example, if an artist painted a picture of me while I was answering calls at my job as a telephone operator, the resulting art piece would be classified as social realism. Joyce Rock’s soon to be released film about the INCO strikers’ wives and their role during the eight and a half month Sudbury strike is another good example of social realism. All five of the NFB shorts presented by Wright can also fit into this category.

Social realism, of course, does not solely depict working women. But working class women do not only have to contend with poverty but also with the inequalities they are subjected to by men from all social classes. As a result, they make excellent ‘subjects’ for the social realist.

The interview with Joan, in Len Chatwin’s Would I Ever Like to Work, captures the frustrations, hurt, and sense of injustice that a working woman often feels. She is a welfare mother with seven children who is trapped inside her home because she cannot afford the daycare costs which would allow her to work for wages. Nor does she feel her work as a mother is worth anything. “Would I ever like to work,” she says while putting plates of food in front of her children, then disciplining them, and later washing the dishes.

Joan knows that she is intelligent enough to have gone to university but she married too young. After her first child, her husband started to beat her, but being pregnant every year, she felt too dependant on him to leave. Only after three doctors had denied her a tubal ligation because they felt she was too young, Joan finally was able to get one.

Then, she left her husband. However, Joan is a realist and knows her responsibility to her children limit her chances of every going to university. She tells the interviewer that she would take a job as a waitress just “to get away from these monsters” during the day. She thinks she would be a better mother if she got a break from looking after her children all day.

In less than nine minutes, the people who made this NFB film (one in a series) were able to project Joan’s past, her present and predict her very possible future. Many women have the same type of life as hers. At the end of the showing, I found myself hoping that the next blow society dealt would not flatten Joan.

Then it was only ten days later that I found social realism was alive and well and co-habitating with SAARC (Social Action and Research Centre). At a SAARC sponsored event in celebration of May Day, I watched the movie called Union Maids

The film focuses on three women — Stella, Kate, and Sylvia, who were rank and file union organizers during the 1930’s. There was nothing “cute” (as one man in the audience thought) in the way these women acted or the incidents they recalled. It was a time, they said, when women were expected to work seven days a week in factories and then go home and do all the housework.

It was a time when union organizing was considered a man’s job. But all three women in the film became involved in unionization for the same reasons that men do. Stella started to talk union with her co-workers when there was an accident on the job. Kate started to speak for the workers’ rights when the company announced layoffs which would effect 50 percent of the workers at her plant. Sylvia began organizing when an untrained while woman was chosen for a supervisory position over the black women who were already working in the laundry company.

Of course, social realism has been in existance long before it was termed art. But if social realism can bridge the gap between the art world and working people, both will benefit from the education.
–END–

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Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader by Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or you can read the first few pages & buy it on amazon.com

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