British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Sylvia Pankhurst, Everything is Possible

GB. 2011. DVD (PAL or NTSC). WORLDwrite. 90 minutes. Price (Europe) £20 (+ P&P). Available from:

About the Author: Dr Steve Poole, Associate Professor of Social and Cultural History, University of the West of England, Bristol. Selected publications include:‘Forty Years of Rural History from Below: Captain Swing and the Historians’, Southern History, 32 (2010) special issue: Captain Swing Reconsidered: Forty Years of Rural History from Below, Steve Poole (ed.) and ‘Introduction: the Character and Reputation of an Acquitted Felon’ and ‘”Not Precedents to be Followed but Examples to be Weighed”: John Thelwall and the Jacobin Sense of the Past’, in Steve Poole (ed)., John Thelwall: Radical Romantic and Acquitted Felon (Pickering & Chatto, 2009).

… there is cultural as well as political history here, with unexpected sections on Pankhurst’s graphic art

This film is a towering achievement in many ways. WORLDwrite have brought together a hundred volunteers, trained them up in film production and collaboratively created an impressive and deeply committed piece of independent documentary cinema. The film explores the extraordinary life of the socialist and feminist, Sylvia Pankhurst, in its entirety, rather than taking the simpler option of concentrating on her best-known role in the more militant and uncompromising wing of the women’s suffrage movement. In fact, this is one of its key strengths, for in Pankhurst’s view, the suffrage campaign was inseparable from the much wider concerns of international socialist struggle.

Fitting such a lengthy and eventful career into ninety minutes of filmmaking was clearly a challenge, but the makers have risen to it and the finished article is pacey and engaging, peppered with lively interviews and decorated with hundreds of contemporary photographs and archive film clips. The filmmakers have also taken cameras into archives to film primary material like Sylvia’s prison record entries and reproduced pages from newspapers, including her own Dreadnought to illustrate occasional readings of her journalism. It’s always good to see historical evidence on screen to underpin the authorial voice of the presenters. There is cultural as well as political history here, with some fascinating, unexpected and well-handled sections on Pankhurst’s graphic art (she designed commemorative certificates for suffragettes who suffered prison sentences); and on the art of anti-suffrage propaganda produced by the movement’s opponents and now archived in the Women’s’ Library. Equally, and again helping to flesh out Pankhurst’s story, there are some excellent contextual asides on the social and economic life of London’s early twentieth century dockland, and on Charles Booth’s efforts to map poverty and deprivation in the city’s East End.

One can excuse the occasionally awkward and wooden style of the film’s trainee presenters; this is never easy to avoid completely in community filmmaking and what we lose in slick professionalism is more than made up for in commitment and self-belief. Paradoxically perhaps if there is a problem here at all it is Sylvia herself for, perhaps inevitably, she sometimes looms larger than the political concerns with which she was involved. Should we be encouraging our students to understand important social and political movements through the narrowing lens of a valorising biography? Sylvia Pankhurst was certainly a considerable figure – anyone who manages to get herself arrested for political activity thirteen times in eighteen years deserves some attention at least – but it is not always to their credit that biographical approaches to social movements monumentalise the contribution of individuals. Effectively, such an approach reduces political controversy and disagreement in the film to the single perspective of the central protagonist.

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