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In times of war people look to their loved ones for comfort, if you are a member of the armed forces, you look to your comrades. In 1914 the die was cast by the German standing army invaded France, and war was declared. In 1994 this interview style documentary And We Learned to Dance directed by Maureen Judge, accurately depicts the lives of women during, and after World War One; with precision, through the recounts of women who served in war time occupations, as well as nurses. This is made clear through the film’s strong use of imagery, first hand accounts, and music to play firmly to the tone of the section. The film surpasses expectations as well, with very few weaknesses, or lack there of. The most pertinent aspect of the film, is the view point of those who not too long ago would have been silenced, or muffled; is being heard, and put on display.
The film [ And we Learned to Dance] is a documentary from 1994, that documents the experiences of women in war time occupations, and military service positions for women at the time. The jobs they undertook varied. Some worked in munitions for production, others in packaging factories for food; while others would work sewing fabrics or aid in manufacturing jobs. The stories told in the film also state that it was not just the lower or low middle class women who worked. The ones in higher class status as well, however they often did not make it passed a few months or so, or so the story was told. Now, just as men would lie about their age to join the army, women would also lie about their age to work in the factories, or work as nurses; rather we know the attempt was made. One women recalls the tale of her going to the work office, and said she wanted to do her part. The age to partake in work assignments was seventeen, and she was fifteen, so therefore she was turned away. Naturally then she went back a few days later, though she was unable to join; because the same man was there from the day prior. The point of this film is to shine light on the land army of the First World War, to bring their stories out of the overshadowing tales of grit, and gore that are the stories from the front lines. There are however strong, spine shivering stories that women have from the war front as well. In V. A. D s (Voluntary Aid Detachments) women who volunteered were trained, and dispatched to tend to the wounded. There was one particularly gruesome account from a woman who was in of these V. A. Ds. A man had just been bayoneted, and it was her job to essentially hold the wound closed so the nurses, and doctors would be able to work. She told the Sister (these detachments were often or entirely headed by the church) that she simply could not hold it closed, she would rather die. The Sister spoke plainly “Then die then, you are no use to me then”. This shows just how seriously these women took their occupations, just as seriously as the men fighting in the formal army. The women of the land army as it is called, are the ones who held the home front while the men were at war. This leads to the second point of the film, which was to show just how equally important woman were, in the war.
This leads to the next point the way the information is shared.
The interview style is one of the best ways to convey this kind of information. The stories that are being told are all firsthand accounts of what life was like for women during, and after the war. The stories of how they had contributed to society as men had, yet were not allowed to vote, not allowed to work in certain industries. Even though this [oppression of women] was, and still is common knowledge, but the stories; and hearing them from a first hand source. This form of documentation gives a real emotional touch to these very important, and eye opening stories. This format allows the film to also convey the problems of the times, such as women not being allowed to vote, men not treating women the same in the workplace, women being sexually harassed in the work place and so on. These points are some of the most important, because they are the ones that are still being debated; and discussed to this very day. A great example is pay differences that are often existent in workplaces all across the world. These are great points, and only adds to the overall spectacle that And we learned to Dance is.
Leading on in strengths, And we Learned to Dance has a strong sense of it’s lane, and does not stray away from it. To clarify And We Learned to Dance clearly knows that it is a short documentary, and does not try to be anything else. From the opening being it’s a long way to Tipperary (By John McCormack), setting the theme to be a historical catalogue of life, playing to the real life video of women in factories, and near war zones is quite a strong use of imagery, showing how important women were to the fight. The film displays an expert use of this tactic, using other videos depending on what they were discussing, also the use of photos was quite an important step. These all make the film great, not only because they pertain to the nature of the production; with it being a historical documentation, but because it has such a strong sense of connection, and is not afraid to recount things that need to be recounted, the telling of stories that may not have been told. This pairing with fantastic visuals, and personal perspective shots of the interview format, makes it almost seem like they are talking directly to you, makes it seem very personal.
Sadly, no great work of art is complete without it’s faults. The format they did use was sadly very repetitive. You came to know what would be next, interview, visuals with voice over, opinions on topics, multiple responses with different people; and finish with a musical transition before moving on. It became very mundane, and draining very quickly. Granted the piece was only one hour long, but it tends to lose engagement for anyone of a younger audience who may be interested in the subject, and to it’s credit it tries to vary in the types of questions to avoid pointless repetition, for instance you hear about the “Blue Devils” (A group of blue collar working girls in a factory) two or three times over the course of the entire piece. These, however are the only downsides to the film. There is no need to develop any more then the stories, and the film does just that. The film is no masterpiece by any means, but that does not mean it is not well done. These themselves are very few weaknesses to speak of, it draws you in with an upbeat tune, and gets you to stay with the information it provides.
The last thing to touch on is the message in And We Learned to Dance. First the title itself. We Learned to Dance mainly. It almost seems weird to learn to dance as we see people dancing, trained or not as young as three or even younger in some cases. The title is like the film is saying, and we learned to work while the men were away, or we learned to live without men around. The film is almost saying we learned to do what we already knew how to do. It gives off this feeling of confidence of, “we already knew how to work without men around” that is really quite intriguing, because the fact of the matter is they [women of the 20th century] already did know. They knew what it meant to work hard, and tend to the home front, because frankly they had been doing it on a smaller scale for years. So they “learned” to do these jobs. The fact is many women would not have gone to do these jobs in the first place if they did not have the drive to work, because that is what humans do, but because patriotism was so common, and so high at the time; many women wanted to keep the home front as a whole stable for when the men, and the women who were there as medical personnel returned from the war. It was a matter of pulling their weight. These women showed what it really means to be apart of a country in a time of need, in times of war.
There are few words that can really describe a film such as this one. The only way that does it justice is, inspiring, accurate, eye opening. And we Learned To Dance was one in many steps towards fully acknowledging women’s rolls in Canadian history, documentaries, articles, lectures, and everything in between are part of how we can correct problems in Canadian history; the first step is acknowledgement. Therefore, well produced, well thought out works of art, and literature are imperative to understanding; and completing our history. This film, has come through on all it’s promises. It promised to tell the story of women in history, it did. It promised to talk about the hardships women faced in the early 1900s, it did. It promised to give women of the time a voice, and it did. Though it is no masterpiece, it has few flaws to speak of, and the messages it conveys are like no other, and the ones who say otherwise have a long trip to Tipperary, because even though there are other works like it, there has never been, and never will be one the same as And we Learned to Dance, and that is pure fact.
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