A full-length documentary “In the Light” directed by Scottish filmmaker Susan Kemp looking at the legacy of pioneering female medical students, the Edinburgh Seven is being released to the public to view for free online. The film, officially launched July 8, asks topical questions about bias in the historical archive and compares the Seven’s struggle with BBC journalist Carrie Gracie’s fight for equal pay.
Kemp said: “The Edinburgh Seven were incredibly brave women who stuck their heads above the parapet and demanded the right to be doctors. Although they were initially accepted by the University of Edinburgh, there was a massive backlash against them. Powerful men led a campaign to push them out which culminated in a riot.
“The abuse and attempts to humiliate them which these women suffered remind me of the way women in public life are sometimes treated today and I have tried to bring that out in the film. Although the Edinburgh Seven and in particular Sophia Jex Blake, who became the first female practising doctor in Scotland, were very well known in their own time they were not commemorated or lionised for their achievements the way famous men are. Like many people who don’t fit the dominant narrative of history, they were quickly pushed out of the limelight and into the shadows.”
The film draws parallels between BBC Carrie Gracie’s struggle for equal pay and that of the leader of the Edinburgh Seven Sophia Jex-Blake’s demands for “a fair field and no favour”. Gracie, who is interviewed in the film, says women like her who campaign for equal pay are seen as “ troublemakers” who threaten mens’ rights to higher pay and bonuses: “One of the things that has fascinated me..has been the way that the establishment...see the men as the victims. It’s amazing.”
Kemp said: “I have been so impressed by the way Carrie continued to fight for equal pay when lots of people would have given up. She has shown so much calm determination. I see Sophia Jex-Blake as a similar sort of character - reading her writing, she was incredibly reasonable but she didn’t give up and she succeeded in the end, despite opposition that would have overwhelmed most people.”
The documentary puts a spotlight on researcher Jo Spiller’s efforts to put the Edinburgh Seven back into the history books. Spiller campaigned successfully for them to be granted posthumous degrees last year, 150 years after they matriculated, and is involved in efforts to increase the presence of these women and other marginalised figures in online archives such as Wikipedia.
Kemp said: “We assume that the archive is neutral and that a lot of these problems have been solved, but they haven’t. It astounded me to discover that less than 18% of biographical entries in Wikipedia are about women. Big data and artificial intelligence turns out to have imported the bias that was implicit in the existing archive. As much as it is about the Edinburgh Seven themselves, the documentary is about the dedicated work that Jo Spiller is doing to try to correct the biased view of the archive and to restore the Edinburgh Seven to their rightful place in it.”
Kemp said: “I have been working on the film for two years. It is not a simple telling of the Edinburgh Seven story. It’s a sort of essay about how we create history and how we correct the bias in it.
“In normal times we would expect a film like this to premier at a film festival. But that is obviously impossible right now. Since completing the film in May, we have seen the issue of who gets to be commemorated explode in the current moment. Rather than wait, we decided we would like to make it available online now. I am a low budget filmmaker who did most of the work myself, with the support of the producer Shone Munro. So we control the film and we were able to decide to do this.
“It is a shame not to have the premiere in a cinema that we might normally have looked forward to, but we hope that might happen eventually. We hope this is the sort of film that will provoke thought and discussion and people can watch it at home how they want - all at once or in a couple of sessions. We will promote it on social media. We welcome people joining the conversation on Twitter - use the hashtag #inthelightfilm.com. ”
Film critic Mark Cousins and writer Sara Sheridan, author of “Where Are the Women?” which imagines an Edinburgh landscape with female statues in it, who both appear in the documentary have tweeted their support of the movie. Some promotional events are being planned for later in the month.