Unsung Auteurs: Sarah Gavron

December 15, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: socially driven filmmaker Sarah Gavron, who helmed Brick Lane, Suffragette and Rocks.

A vital female voice on the international cinema scene, Sarah Gavron got a lot of welcome and justified attention for her exceptional 2007 big screen debut Brick Lane, but film commentators have been slightly under-celebrating the talented director since, and failing to sing her praises in the way that she truly deserves. There are so relatively few female directors on the scene, let alone filmmakers telling distinctly and powerfully female stories, that Sarah Gavron’s work should be hailed in far more vociferous manner.

Though a fiery voice for change, Sarah Gavron is decidedly high born, being the daughter of British printing millionaire, philanthropist and Labour life peer Baron Robert Gavron and successful politician Nicky Gavron. “One reason I went into this industry is that nobody in my family has ever done anything like it,” Sarah Gavron told The Guardian.

Sarah Gavron

Born in 1970, Gavron was educated at Camden School For Girls, and graduated from The University Of York with a BA in English and an MA in film studies from Edinburgh College Of Art. Gavron went to The National Film And Television School, where a directing class taught by the great Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, Philomena, The Queen) proved to be a major influence and inspiration. Before studying at The National Film School, Gavron worked for the BBC in documentaries for three years, and eventually made her directorial debut with two shorts (2000’s The Girl In The Lay-By and Losing Touch), both of which showcased the filmmakers strong facility for gritty, deeply humanist storytelling.

Gavron carried that brand of highly sensitive, honestly emotive, and utterly unforgiving filmmaking into her first feature length work This Little Life. Made for television in 2003, this brave drama stars Kate Ashfield and David Morrissey as a couple dealing with a raft of life-changing dilemmas when their son Luke is born extremely premature. Drawing on her documentary background, Gavron crafted a film of striking authenticity and emotional honesty, while also driving her cast to incredible performances. “I felt a huge responsibility to these parents,” Gavron told The Guardian. “It’s an untold story: a baby’s birth is meant to be surrounded by celebration.”

Tannishtha Chatterjee and Satish Kaushik in Brick Lane.

This Little Life received great reviews and garnered award attention, and led Gavron onto her first big screen feature in 2007 with Brick Lane. Adapted from English-Bangladeshi author Monica Ali’s essential novel (which, along with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, was a landmark in giving voice to a new multicultural sensibility in Britain), Gavron’s superb drama tells of the beautiful Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who is sent to London to marry the family-chosen husband Chanu (Satish Kaushik), but later becomes involved with a handsome, younger British-born Bangladeshi, Karim (Christopher Simpson). Brick Lane is a vital depiction of the immigrant experience in Britain, and a stunningly assured major debut from Sarah Gavron. “I felt what was unique about the novel was that though it’s set in this niche in society, the story is universal,” Gavron told Indiewire. “It’s about people we can all connect with. And it’s not dealing with the extremes or the stereotypes of Asian cinema – it’s not about suicide bombers or a wife beater.”

From the highly contemporary Brick Lane, Gavron took a major left turn with her next film, which considerably raised the stakes. 2015’s powerfully effective Suffragette is a big budget period piece set in London in 1912, and follows the British suffragist movement, with a collective of women (played by the starry likes of Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, and Helena Bonham Carter) bravely agitating for the right to vote against great, seemingly insurmountable odds. “I hadn’t been taught it at school or anything really,” Gavron told FilmInk in 2015. “It was such an important social movement that it is easy to overlook that now. Once I had started to really read about it, it seemed so shocking and so relevant. And I wondered why no one had really done this in film. It made me realise how harsh the fight for our rights really was. And it’s linked to all those other struggles like sexual inequality and the still existing pay gap. And it’s also about those issues of peoples’ right to protest and organise, and how this can call forth the latent violence of the state.”

Sarah Gavron on the set of Suffragette.

Though the film ultimately received mixed reviews, the impressive Suffragette opened very successfully at The London Film Festival, which Gavron discussed with FilmInk. “I was only the third woman director to open The London Film Festival in 58 years,” Gavron said with obvious pride. “Actually, on the day, there was a group of women campaigning against cuts to social services, and they staged a protest on the red carpet. That felt very appropriate,” she laughed.

After the mixed response received by the ambitious Suffragette, Gavron returned to the type of storytelling that she had so successfully showcased with Brick Lane. Dealing again with the immigrant experience, the energetic 2019 coming-of-age drama Rocks, which intricately, honestly and expertly explores the intense friendships between a group of British teen girls of African heritage. Gavron bounces brilliantly with the fresh skills of her young cast and delivers a wonderfully entertaining and insightful film. “When I was growing up, there were very few films about teenage girls, especially the teenage girls that you see on the street, at the bus stop, on the buses or in schools,” Gavron told iNews in 2019. “So, I started talking to a lot of the creative team about making a film about young people.”

Sarah Gavron on the set of Rocks.

Giving cinematic voice to those previously not seen on screen with any great frequency, Sarah Gavron is a deeply humanist, quietly political British filmmaker with a lot to say, and an authentic, winningly sensitive way of saying it.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay Roach, Barbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.