Browse and search - Biography of 'GILBERTSON, Jenny Isabel (nee Brown)'

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Film-maker

Born: 1902, Glasgow
Died: 1990, Shetland

Gilbertson trained as a teacher and in 1929 did a secretarial course with journalism in London. She saw an amateur film of a Loch Lomond holiday and decided filmmaking was for her, making educational films and lecturing with them in schools, she bought a 16mm camera and practised by filming two 50ft rolls in the park. Arriving in Shetland to film seasonal life in January 1931, by autumn had made A Crofter's Life in Shetland. After cutting the film together she invited John Grierson to view it. He was enthusiastic and advised her on documentary-making techniques and to buy a professional camera, so she bought a 35mm Eyemo.

Returning to the Shetland Islands, she made 5 films, which Grierson bought, for the GPO Film Library, he then advised her to make a story- documentary. This resulted in The Rugged Island- A Shetland Lyric, a story of the harsh life of crofting families in the 1930s. During a 1934/35 lecture tour of Canada with "Rugged Island", Gilbertson made Prairie Winter with Evelyn Spice. Gilbertson used this in a lecture tour of Britain. Between 1936-1939 she made three Shetland films.

From 1940 Gilbertson ran a small Shetland hosiery business. Realising in 1947 that she had no head for business, she reluctantly accepted an offer of teaching in the local school for one year and stayed for twenty. During this time she broadcast several short radio talks, wrote scripts for schools radio and two one-hour radio plays. While she was still teaching, her friend, filmmaker Elizabeth Balneaves, suggested they make a film together for BBC Northern Service. People of Many Lands - Shetland was broadcast on BBC in October 1967. Gilbertson retired from teaching in 1967 and was able to devote more time to filmmaking. She had collected material of the cyclical life of the ponies on Shetland and after several attempts to film the mares foaling she finished Shetland Pony in 1969.

In 1970, Gilbertson and Balneaves prepared to film in Canada, but Balneaves became ill so Gilbertson went alone. She made several films of Arctic life, People of Many Lands Ð the Eskimo was commissioned by the BBC Jenny's Arctic - Part 1 was made for Canadian Broadcasting Company in 1972. To film Jenny's Dog Team Journey, in 1975, 4 adults and a baby travelled 300 miles in two weeks over inhospitable terrain from Igloolik to Repulse Bay. CBC in 1976 and BBC in 1978 broadcast the film.

In 1977-78 Gilbertson, now 76, spent 13 months in Grisefiord, 900 miles north of the Arctic Circle to make Jenny's Arctic Diary, recording a cyclical year in the life of the Inuit community. Gilbertson was remarkable in that all her films were what she described as a "one-woman job"; she did all the script-writing, filming, sound, lighting, direction herself. Her films were so successful because they had a very special quality; she identified with and was clearly accepted by the people being filmed.

Researcher: Anne Wade