British filmmaker Niger Cole doesn’t mince his words — his new movie "Made in Dagenham," he says, is decidedly British, taking a serious union struggle and turning it into gritty, feel-good cinema.
"We are kind of embarrassed if it’s all too serious," he told AFP before the film hit US screens this weekend.
"We like the stories about the little person who has to struggle against the biggest," he said.
The director’s previous work includes "Saving Grace" in 2000, in which a widow takes to growing marijuana to pay her debts, and 2003’s "Calendar Girls," about a bunch of middle-aged women undressing for charity.
With his latest movie, he tells the story of a little known episode when a group of female workers at a Ford car plant go on strike for equal pay with men.
And it fits bang into recent British movie tradition. Like Peter Cattaneo’s 1997 "The Full Monty" — which tackled the unglamorous issue of unemployment but went on to become an international hit — Cole doesn’t flinch from treating biting social issues with comedy.
"I think that the British character can’t be serious for too long, I think we are constantly trying to bring humor. We like to mix comedy and drama, I think we are good at that," he told AFP.
"I think also the traditional English character is the underdog," he added. "The kind of little guy who doesn’t give in and keeps on fighting."
The "little person" in "Made in Dagenham" is, as is often the case with Cole, a woman — in this case Rita O’Grady, who leads the Ford strike which led at the end of the 1960s to a law-guaranteeing equal pay for men and women.
Although the film is based on reality, Rita — played with a mixture of innocence and confidence by Sally Hawkins (the eternal optimist of Mike Leigh’s 2008 "Happy Go Lucky") — is fictional, a mix of several real women.
"We spent many many hours listening to the real women telling their stories. And everything in the movie is inspired by something they told us," recalls Cole.
In fact the real women won no lasting renown from their achievements, despite the historic consequences of what they did.
"The story was forgotten. But since we made the movie, they have been persuaded that they did something great, historical and significant. They didn’t know what they were doing at that time.
"We showed the movie to the surviving women. They all brought their children and grand-children. At the end, you could hear the children say, "We didn’t know you did this, how could you not tell us?"
"What I love about these women is that they have not sought glory or fame. They just knew they were right. Perhaps these days, if that thing was happening now, they would have books and TV shows and advertise for breakfast cereals.
When you mention to Cole that he’s chosen yet another story which puts the spotlight on exceptional women, he insists that he doesn’t only look for feminine subjects to make films about.
"I don’t look to women’s stories. I look for good stories, and it just turns out that they are about women," he says.
He adds that in "Made in Dagenham" he also wanted to portray the changing role of men in a society which has change so much.
"One of the things I tried to bring into this film is that it was hard for men as it was for women," he says.
"I think that all of us realize that we have to do the things differently and we have to be different. The trouble is we don’t know how. We’ve not been trained.
"I know I have to live with my girlfriend in a different way of how my father lived with my mother, but I have no plan, no blueprint. I feel we are all making it up," he adds.