Frogs and snails and fairytales

A Leeds women’s co-op is using cartoons to bring social and educational issues to life. Leeds Animation Workshop (LAW) produces and distributes animated films on everything from domestic...

A Leeds women’s co-op is using cartoons to bring social and educational issues to life. Leeds Animation Workshop (LAW) produces and distributes animated films on everything from domestic abuse to saving energy.

It began in 1976 when a group of female friends came together to make a film about the need for pre-school childcare. After completing Who Needs Nurseries? We Do! the group formally established in 1978 and registered as a worker co-op in 1981.

Its second film, Risky Business, features union safety representative Carol and her assistant Reggie the Robot as they face hazards including lifting, noise, chemicals, machinery and a dust monster which stifles its victims.

Since then, the co-op has applied feminist thinking and a light touch to issues as diverse as the arms race (Pretend You’ll Survive, 1980) and gender stereotyping and bullying in schools (Tell It Like It Is, 2000).

“In the early days the animation workshop grew to around a dozen people – and even included three men,” remembers Terry Wragg of LAW. “One of the men said he’d really like to have a go at storyboarding. When he came up with Mr Hippo in his armchair and Mrs Hippo in a frilly apron serving him tea we knew we had to do something different.

“This was 1979, before the word ‘sexist’ was widely known. Things were different then. We already knew we wanted to make films which were accessible, but we also wanted to break out of those sterotypes.”

The group split in two following ‘hipppogate’ and LAW went women-only. Since then, women have managed the entire production process, from initial research to distribution.

Over the years the co-op has attracted funding from the Home Office, particularly for its films aimed at parents in difficulty, and the European Commission, for its work on equality.

One quartet of films it produced, on equality at work, was narrated by Alan Bennett and used fairy tale elements. Through the Glass Ceiling looks at equal opportunities, Working with Care is about balancing work and family life, No Offence tackles harassment and Did I Say Hairdressing? I Meant Astrophysics looks at equal opportunities in traditionally male subjects such as science, engineering and technology.

But as funding gets harder to secure, its focus has turned to lower-budget productions, education and distribution. “There isn’t much funding available for a tiny enterprise like ours,” Terry explains. “It seems to be geared towards huge organisations.

“It was always difficult to raise funds, but now its impossible. Distribution helps us survive and, because we use animation, our films don’t date.”

A lot has changed since 1976, but the issues the films tackle are perennial. Terry wishes LAW had an advertising budget to promote its work on child sexual abuse, for example.

Current projects include a low budget film about the problems faced by migrant domestic workers. “Justice For Domestic Workers are migrant workers fighting for an end to modern-day slavery,” says Terry. “It’s been great to work with them.”

Last year the co-op, in something of a departure, made a non-budget art film, Rise And Fall. A sideways look at privatisation, it formed part of 100’, a 16mm film curatorial project shown at Latitude Festival 2014.

 “Although we weren’t able to find funding for a full-scale production last year, we managed to produce different films,” says Terry, “including low-budget and no-budget art films, animations and music videos.

“We worked with other artists and film makers and taught lots of people to use animation for the first time. We’ve also begun to allow volunteers to work with us, and we’re looking positively at new collaborations.”

She says LAW has been a feminist collective  since 1978 – “and we still are. It’s possible for a male volunteer to work with us, as long as he’s a feminist too.

“The thing that’s most notable is the flexibility of how we work. When somebody wants to take time off to have a baby or because of other family matters, it’s not a problem. People have been very reliable, but also very flexible around other’s needs.”

The co-op organises through regular meetings, with a rotating chair and rotating minute taker.

“I know people who work for small not-for-profit organisations who feel they don’t have a say in their work,” Terry adds. “They say ‘this really doesn’t suit me, I’m not good at it.’ That wouldn’t be a problem for us. It would have come up in one of our meetings.

“Even when our films haven’t been about specifically feminist issues, they have strong female characters. When we’re dealing with subjects like domestic violence or abuse, women are shown in a positive light, not as helpless victims.

“Feminist ideas shine through. Our films carry a message, but we never wanted to tell audiences what to think, just encourage them to ask questions and hopefully discuss things. We try not to point fingers of blame but to identify problems and work out positive solutions.”

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