Some filmmakers are easy to pigeonhole. They do Sweaty-Palmed Action or Sprawling Issues or Darkly Fantastical. But some, I muse as I finally track down Beeban Kidron’s office in a backstreet in Islington, north London, are much harder to categorise. It’s not obvious how to reconcile Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004) – the echt chick-flick that is probably the British director’s best-known movie – with Sex, Death and the Gods, her forthcoming documentary about India’s “sacred prostitutes”.
It’s an incongruity she readily acknowledges as we perch on a sofa in her production company’s new office, a lofty space that still has a tang of fresh paint in the air. Both office and company are shared with her husband, Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall. The 49-year-old Kidron, clad in jeans and zip-up hoodie, gives an impression of vigour, of resilience – possibly a prerequisite for 30 years in the movie business. Her résumé, she agrees, is “an odd thing”. But she points out that her new film is of a piece with a documentary she made in 1993, Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns, about prostitution in New York.
Hookers, like the new film, does not preach but coolly looks at the choices and trade-offs involved in prostitution. When Kidron chanced to hear a radio item about the devadasi, she knew there had to be more to it than “sex in the name of god” – and that it was a story she was going to tell. “I just knew as I was listening to it that I was getting on a plane to India,” she says. “There was no thought as to whether that was sensible or that was what people wanted to hear but that was what was going to happen.”
The result is not an easy watch. The subject is harrowing: though the practice is illegal, lower-caste girls in rural India are ceremonially pledged to the goddess Yellamma by their guardians; on reaching puberty, these devadasi – “god-servants” – cannot marry but must work as prostitutes. The rationale, it becomes clear as we listen to these women in their dingy brothels is partly economic – one woman earns £13 a day, compared with her labouring brother’s 65p – and partly a matter of status: the devadasi, heirs to a courtly system of concubinage, are still a notch above the girls trafficked into urban brothels. At the end, one’s repugnance gives way to a more nuanced (or confused) understanding.
This does not reflect uncertainty on Kidron’s part. “It’s not that I’m ambivalent – I have a very, very clear view – but I felt that my job was to put all the very different views of the devadasi before the audience. My position is: listen to what these people are saying. It is more complicated than what we are saying about them.”
If the film does have a message, she says, it is that Britain, as the former colonial power, bears a heavy responsibility for the miseries of today’s devadasi and that the solution lies in education – in giving girls chances that they would otherwise lack.
The young Kidron had her share of chances. Her London-based immigrant parents – father from South Africa, mother from Belgium – were friends with landscape photographer Fay Godwin. When Kidron had an operation that meant she could not talk or run for a year, Godwin gave her a camera to pass the time. Her pictures were published and attracted the attention of the photographer Eve Arnold, who asked Kidron if she would work as her assistant – which, on turning 16, she did.
From photography she switched to film school and, as the child of socialist parents – they ran the leftwing publishing house Pluto Press – it was perhaps natural that she should film one of the biggest British protests of the 1980s, at Greenham Common. She spent seven months at the women-only camp, which aimed to prevent the siting of atomic cruise missiles at a US airbase. The result was the campaigning Carry Greenham Home (1983), Kidron’s first film, made with Amanda Richardson.
She reminisces cheerfully about the hardships of the camp, and says that the experience still informs her filmmaking. “What the media did was that they made this sort of horrendous ‘Greenham Woman’, who looked, smelled and talked in a particular way,” she explains. “What I know – and what the film made very clear – is the multitude that were subsumed in that projection: church women, straight women, gay women, conservative women, liberal women. I think it’s powerful to actually offer the intractable complexity of life rather than give you the answer.”
Kidron’s breakthrough came in 1989 with the Bafta-winning TV drama Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, adapted from Jeanette Winterson’s lesbian coming-of-age novel. The starry vehicles for which she is best known have not always had a smooth ride: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason received a drubbing from the critics, and in 2009 she quit as director of Hippie Hippie Shake, based on Oz editor Richard Neville’s memoir of Swinging London. I ask whether a shoestring documentary such as Sex, Death and the Gods is a respite from the rough and tumble of big-budget movies.
“There’s hard and there’s hard,” she says. “Making a big commercial movie is hard when you think about how many of them flop. When there’s [just] three of you, you’ve got to do everything. There’s nobody checking you’re all right.”
Besides, she says, she loves the high-end stuff. “Because you’re standing at the back of a cinema in Times Square and everybody’s laughing and that’s part of the stuff that’s good in the world. I love the hugeness of the undertaking, the impossibility and then the possibility of it.”
But isn’t directing a notoriously tough career for women? Why are so few women doing it? Kidron has no truck with this well-worn line. Film, she says, is no different from any other profession. “Women are under-represented, yes, but largely because they are primary carers. End of story. When we deal with why women are looking after the kids, then we deal with why there aren’t more women at the top. But it’s not about directing or not directing. There are now lots of women directors and some are bloody good.”
What about those grisly anecdotes about Hollywood’s high-testosterone executives?
“If you talk to filmmakers, they’ve all got horror stories,” she says. “If you’re a woman, they’ll get you on that; if you’re working class, they’ll get you on that; and if you’re fat, they’ll get you on that. It’s not that I’m not willing to go up on the barricades but I’d like you to look at my work, not at my gender.”
I ask what projects she is working on now. She says she is excited by a drama series that she has devised for the BBC but won’t elaborate further, and she has a couple of films in development. Filmclub, a charity she set up with Lindsay Mackie that brings movies into secondary schools, also takes up a lot of her time: in five years it has grown from 25 schools to over 6,000.
“I think I’ve been very, very lucky in my life and I do believe in public service. Life is really hard for some people,” she says, returning to her new film. “And it’s not a duty because that’s too earnest; it’s a privilege to tell those women’s stories. People have a right to have their lives witnessed; if we coexist with the systems that abuse people, then we have a duty to understand.
“And if because I made Bridget Jones somebody comes to talk to me about those stories, then great. From my perspective, I just feel that I’m the luckiest woman alive, that I get to do both.”
‘Sex, Death and the Gods’ will be shown on January 24 on BBC4