Premiering this March at the Glasgow Film Festival, Jo Reid’s documentary explores how the introduction of bicycles in Scotland helped women claim their independence and opened up new horizons for them.
“Freedom Machine”, was co-commissioned in anticipation of Glasgow hosting the inaugural UCI Cycling Championships in August. (Film still courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival)
Titled after a famous quote by American female suffragist Susan B. Anthony, film curator Jo Reid explained that work on “Freedom Machine” had begun at the end of November 2022, after she was first approached to create the documentary.
The documentary was co-commissioned by Glasgow Life, as Glasgow plays host to the inaugural 2023 UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Cycling World Championships this August 2023.
Working on archived footage to pull the documentary together, Ms. Reid said she had been constantly inspired and received much-needed context information on the history of women on bicycles.
These, she said, were stories of early cyclists who had to really fight to get on their bikes, as well as the communities and camaraderie formed through clubs.
“I think we are really lucky in Scotland that in the past few years, we’ve had some really excellent archival films released like Launch! and Living Proof,” Ms. Reid said, adding she was indebted to such films and their method of telling stories using archive materials.
MAKING THE CUT
Sourcing and selecting the footage for inclusion in Freedom Machine was an inspiring task. But one aspect Ms. Reid was eager to talk about were the clips that did not make it into the final cut.
The curator explained she always tries not to get attached to particular films when working with archive footage due to factors such as cost, time, availability, copyright, and licensing issues.
Ms. Reid sought footage of women on bicycles from various archives, although some didn’t make the final cut. (Film still courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival)
“It is not always to be, but it’s hard, and it is rubbish having to make the call that you cannot tell a specific story the way you like,” Ms. Reid remarked.
One example she had hoped to explore was a 1980s Edinburgh film about mothers and exercise to illustrate the barriers faced by women getting into cycling, but the footage was not available given her tight turnaround time.
“There was also some footage of female bicycle factory workers that was just fab, but alas, the copyright clearance did not come through in time.”
“I am still really proud of The Freedom Machine, but I will always think of the ones that got away,” Ms. Reid rued.
For the footage that did make the final cut, Ms. Reid explained that beyond the usual images of fit, athletic young women, she wanted the footage of her subjects to be a mix of women and different types of cycling.
As such, Freedom Machine’s composition was guided as much by the material as it was by Ms. Reid’s vision, with the film divided into multiple sections based on the most common themes she unearthed from the archives.
“I wanted to avoid the impulse for it to be too nostalgic or cozy (which is always a danger when using archival footage) and challenge the idea of cycling as a hobby or sport,” Ms. Reid said.
a step-through safety bicycle, similar to our modern bikes. (Film still courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival)
She added that the aim was to showcase the bicycle as a tool and an industry, not just a consumer good but also something manufactured by female workers.
A film would not be complete without its soundtrack, and Ms. Reid took the opportunity to give her collaborator for Freedom Machine’s soundtrack, Cat Hawthorn, a shoutout of appreciation.
“It (the soundtrack) really felt like it made the film "click" in a way that it had not before. "I was definitely inspired by the soundtrack.”
“The visuals and the audio informed each other 100%, and it was lovely to build off each other’s work,” she added.
Freelance film curator Jo Reid (Photo: LinkedIn/Jo Reid)
FEMINISM AND CYCLING
For Reid, the introduction of bicycles resulted in many early feminists adopting the machine as a symbol of women’s rights.
“The female cyclist was really a figure of liberation, and as a result heavily satirised.”
“And it’s really interesting to see how stereotypes surrounding women cyclists that still exist today first featured in anti-suffragette propaganda,” Ms. Reid said.
A look back at history shows that as more women took to cycling, fashions developed, such as “rational dress” (skirtless, baggy knee-length trousers, gathered a little below the knees), to let women bicycle safely.
However, women who wore this new dress while cycling were caricatured, with magazines such as Punch depicting some of the negative attitudes towards women cyclists, while male doctors of that period attempted to gate-keep women’s sexual morals under the guise of concern over their sexual health by theorising how the bicycle seat could be used for female masturbation.
For Jo Reid, the bicycle’s introduction meant women now had a way to be out in public without a chaperone, move and travel in ways not available before, and meet up with other women.
“I do not know if the bicycle was instrumental in advancing the cause of women’s rights, but it became a symbol of those rights,” Ms. Reid said.
One takeaway for audiences that Ms. Reid hopes to achieve is for viewers to try out cycling. (Movie still courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival)