Jenny Gilbertson: how she lived her life and got her shot

When I saw the Shetland documentary filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson’s film Rugged Island I was 36 and went home to ask my mother who was Jenny Gilbertson? She was surprised I was asking. “That’s Heather and Rhonas’ granny.” I had had no idea this small Shetland woman who had given me bread and jam as I sat on her wall at Exnaboe aged 8 was one of the first female documentary filmmakers in the world.

I have since learned there is more to her than just being a female first. She was unique in that she did everything (from camera to direction to editing to distribution) herself. Moreover, living amongst her subjects and in her characteristically slow, gentle way, she captured times, places and people – first in pre-war, pre-oil Shetland, and then in the North West Territories of Arctic Canada – that soon after forever changed.

Jenny Gilbertson’s films span the 30s to the 70s and show a deep empathy and profound respect for those who toiled with the land or the ice for survival. That she was staying with and filming the Inuit people 720 miles North of the Arctic circle whilst in her seventies is evidence of the spirited way in which she lived her life and got her shot.

I am writing this book as a thank you to Jenny for helping me find my own way – and my own time – in making films. And I am writing it to correct a wrong. If you read into the history of documentary filmmaking you are unlikely to find mention of her name or her work. Whether this was because she was an outsider or a woman, I don’t yet understand. But 25 years after her death it’s a good time to study her life and how she honestly but beautifully documented the meaning of ordinary faraway lives.

This post was published on the now defunct WordPress blog ‘Jenny Gilbertson: a biography’ on June 2, 2015. I have consolidated my blogs to keep things together and more manageable.

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