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Film review: Hidden HerStories

Hidden HerStories
Octavia Foundation
UK, 2010, 50 mins (approx)

  • Part of Black History Month

You’d be forgiven for not recognising the names of Octavia Hill, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Claudia Jones and Jayaben Desai: that’s because these four women, despite their resounding influence, have been unjustly left out of the history books.

Thanks to the Octavia Heritage Foundation, which provided funding for twenty young, inexperienced film-makers to research and shoot a documentary on the achievements of these remarkable women, you might not be so quick to forget them after watching Hidden HerStories.

Not only is the film an extraordinary achievement for twenty kids with minimal experience of film-making – it’s also a refreshing new perspective for Black History Month. It is difficult to give such a vital and important aspect of history the attention it deserves with only one month a year dedicated to it, and so unfortunately most of us are stuck with a patchy bit of school history on the slave trade and the civil rights movement. Few people know that Claudia Jones, deported from the USA during the McCarthy witch-hunts, founded the Notting Hill Carnival and was renowned for her human rights activism. Octavia Hill was an early pioneer of social reform, and co-founded the National Trust. Amy Ashwood Garvey, the first wife of Marcus Garvey, was a pan-Africanist activist who founded the Florence Mills Jazz Club in Carnaby Street. Jayaben Desai, a trade-unionist, led a strike in a film-processing factory against racism, harassment, poor pay and appalling working conditions.

Of course, the film is far from perfect; this was the first foray into filmmaking many of these young people had ever made, and at times the interviews feel awkwardly edited, the shots clumsily framed. The film also tries to cover too much ground within too tight a time-frame, meaning that some of the stories feel incomplete and difficult to engage with (for example the story of Claudia Jones) while others, such as Octavia Hill’s section, feel as though a small amount of information has been stretched thinly over fifteen minutes. It also has a tendency to rely too much on the talking heads for material and Ms Dynamite’s very brief interview is simply unnecessary. However, these are but nitpicks; the film itself, carefully researched and lovingly put together, carries an emphatic message about justice and social unity, and is essential viewing for anyone claiming to have an interest in black history.

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