Jenny Gilbertson

I am a SGSAH supported pratice-led PhD candidate at Stirling University and Glasgow School of Art exploring – both critically and visually – ‘The Space between documentarist and subject: the quietly radical ideas and ethics of Jenny Gilbertson’.

JGwithcameraAbout Jenny Gilbertson

Born in 1902 in Glasgow, Jenny Brown was the only daughter of an iron and steel merchant and rather conservative mother. Educated at Laurel Bank and – against her mother’s wishes – Glasgow University, where she gained an MA before she trained as a primary teacher and nannied for the family of a Harvard professor for a year in Boston before returning to Glasgow. Following a short course in secretarial studies and journalism in London, she set out to work as a freelance journalist. A friend showed her a film he was making and helped her buy her first 16mm Cine-Kodak camera.

With this she headed to Shetland in 1931, a place she had visited as a child, to stay and make a film with the Clarks of Heylor, friends she had made during many summer holidays to Shetland. Another friend, the Hillswick crofter and blacksmith Johnny Gilbertson introduced her to other crofters in the area. Later that year she travelled to London to complete the edit of her first film A Crofter’s Life in Shetland which followed the year, from spring to Up Helly Aa (the fire festival that marks the end of the dark nights of Yule).

Jenny managed to show this film to John Grierson, then of the EMB (Empire Marketing Board) who was deeply impressed with her style and subject matter. He advised her to get a 35mm camera (an Eyemo) and in 1933 bought five films from her for his new film unit at the GPO (General Post Office): Cattle Sale, In Sheep’s Clothing, Seabirds of Shetland, Da Makkin o’ a Keshie and Peat from Hillside to Home (also known as Scenes from a Shetland Croft Life).

Grierson suggested she try her hand at a feature film, so Jenny made Rugged Island about a young Shetland couple being given the choice to emigrate to Australia or to stay in Shetland and continue to croft. Johnny Gilbertson not only built the sets but played the romantic lead. The film was bought by a distributor that immediately went bust but not before Jenny and Johnny got married thinking that this would provide the necessary income.

Assisted by Grierson’s contacts, they took the film to Canada as part of a lecture tour. At the end they joined the Canadian filmmaker Evelyn Cherry and made Prairie Winter, which follows a day in the life of a prairie farmer in snow-bound Saskatchewan. This took 6 weeks to film and provided Johnny Gilbertson with his first credit as cameraman.

The Gilbertsons’ elder daughter Helen was born before they returned to Hillswick in Shetland and she was followed by Ann. Before WWI, Jenny made three more films with the assistance of Cuthbert Cayley, Northern Outpost, Harvest of the North and Ugly Duckling but the war years stymied their distribution. Johnny was enlisted early in the war but returned invalided after a year.

In 1946 Jenny took a job teaching at Urafirth Primary School and ran a small knitwear business whilst writing and producing local drama productions and writing educational scripts for radio. Meanwhile, Johnny worked in the weaving sheds of Hillswick.

It was after Johnny died suddenly in 1967 that Jenny, just about to retire from teaching, began the second phase of her filmmaking life. Whilst filming Shetland Pony – an effort that was to take her 4 years – her friend Elizabeth Balneaves, the writer, filmmaker and artist who was living in Shetland suggested they collaborate. Together they filmed People of Many Lands: Papa Stour for the BBC (this film is yet to be located…). This led to them planning a trip together to visit a Shetland schoolteacher who had moved to Coral Harbour in Southampton Island in Arctic Canada to make a film for the same BBC series. However, Elizabeth became ill. Jenny went alone.

And so, in 1970 just before she entered her 70s, she began a prolific period of filming. Living for long periods in the Arctic, first in Coral Harbour then in Grise Fiord, she received commissions and sold films to both British and Canadian broadcasters and Canada’s Museum of Man (now the Museum of History). These films include People of Many Lands: the Eskimo (Arctic Settlement), Eskimo Children, Jenny’s Arctic Diary (Part I and II), Jenny’s Dog Team Journey, Making of Kamiks (sealskin boots), Polar Bear Hunt, Caribou Hunt, Walrus Hunt, Winter Fishing for Arctic Char Under Lake Ice, Summer Fishing for Arctic Char at a River and Jenny’s Arctic Diary.

Jenny Gilbertson died in January 1990. She left behind 29 films. Many of these and some of her unedited or partially edited footage can be found in the Shetland Archive, NLS Moving Image Archive, British Film Institute and the Museum of History in Ottawa

About my research

You can read about how I came to Jenny Gilbertson (or she to me) here. Since January 2012 I have been researching her life and work, from her diaries and films in the NLS Moving Image Archive, to her papers in the Shetland Museum and Archive and speaking to her family those who knew her. In doing so it became clear that very little had been written about Gilbertson and that she did not really feature in the history of documentary. In 2016 I was granted full SGSAH funding to complete a PhD that would look at her distinct approach to documenting communities and I began the Doctoral training Programme at Stirling and GSA in October 2016.

My practice-led research will consider the core question of how to create & sustain an ethical filmmaking relationship with the people you are filming. Alongside archival investigation – helped by my recent SGSAH Artist’s Residency at the Shetland Archive – and close study of Gilbertson’s films, in June to December 2018 I will visit the people she filmed in Grise Fiord, the most northerly civilian settlement in Arctic Canada. There I will hear their experiences of living and filming with her and visually explore her approach and my own before offering a critically reflective analysis of her legacy and its potential for contemporary documentary practice.

I am fundraising for this fieldwork here.