Award-winning documentary film-maker, writer and artist.
NEWS: On Monday December 9th, 2019 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a 45-minute dramatisation of Hamermesh’s memoir THE RIVER OF ANGRY DOGS. This was part of a major series for Radio 4 called THIS IS YOUR COUNTRY NOW TOO, a series of 7 new dramas, each featuring the story of a child or young person arriving on British territory as a refugee across the twentieth century. The series featured young refugees’ stories from around the world and across the decades. Hamermesh’s story will represent the 1940s and will mark her journey from Poland to Palestine.
Mira Hamermesh (1923-2012) was considered one of the most gifted documentary makers of her generation. Born to a middle-class Jewish family in Poland but spending most of her working life in the UK, she was a passionate feminist whose main subjects were women, war and social injustice. She was also the author of a highly regarded memoir THE RIVER OF ANGRY DOGS and a painter of distinction with exhibitions in Jerusalem and London.
In the 1980’s she produced a series of award-winning documentaries for Channel 4 that dealt with, in turn, women living under apartheid in South Africa (MAIDS AND MADAMS), the “untouchables” in India (CASTE AT BIRTH) and the emotional toll for both Israelis and Palestinians living with the long-running Israel-Palestinian conflict (TALKING TO THE ENEMY).
But what many considered her masterpiece was a deeply personal film about how Poles in present-day Poland co-exist with the ghosts of their missing Jewish neighbours murdered in their millions during World War II. In LOVING THE DEAD (BBC, 1990), Hamermesh goes on a very personal search for her parents, for her mother who died of starvation in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, the town of her birth, and her father who perished in Auschwitz. Combined with her very personal journey she travels across Poland to find traces of the vanished Jewish presence that has marked Poland over many centuries.
LOVING THE DEAD drew acclaim from, among others, Steven Spielberg who viewed it as he was preparing to make SCHINDLER’S LIST. In a letter to Hamermesh, Spielberg wrote: “I was moved to tears and deep thoughts while watching LOVING THE DEAD. It is another important brick in the monument that must be rebuilt to remind our children of the tremendous contributions and sacrifices Jewish people have made all over the world. It inspires me in my quest to make SCHINDLER’S LIST a film. Thank you for your film.”
Hamermesh was born July 15th 1923 in Lodz, Poland the youngest of three children to a middle-class Jewish family. She felt particularly close to her father who ran a small rubber factory making wheels for the motor trade vehicles. Her father travelled abroad for his work, sending Mira postcards of London and Paris and other great European cities. Mira’s
mother claimed to be descended from a famous rabbinical family. She grew up in a comfortable section of Lodz, with holidays abroad, a servant and many of the accoutrements of the modern world.
On September 5th 1939 German troops rolled into Lodz. Mira quickly understood that Jews were in great peril under Nazi occupation and decided that she had to escape Poland and make her way to Palestine, where her sister Genia had moved the year before. In November 1939, just two months after the Nazi invasion, she managed to persuade her reluctant and fearful parents to allow her and her older brother Mordechai to attempt that treacherous journey. She was armed with little more than a forged identity card.
In her memoir THE RIVER OF ANGRY DOGS Hamermesh described her escape from German-occupied Poland – including a swim under the cover of darkness across the River San – to Lvov in Soviet-occupied Poland and then Vilnius, Lithuania where she spent a year looked after by a Jewish organisation. Hamermesh ultimately made it to Palestine with the aid of a Jewish youth organisation via Moscow, Istanbul, Odessa, Damascus and Beirut, thanks to her sister who worked tirelessly to obtain a highly prized entry permit to the British protectorate. Mira’s brother, who was arrested by Soviet troops and sent to Siberia, also miraculously made it to Palestine, all three siblings thus escaping the fate of their parents.
After a brief sojourn at the Ben Shemen agriculture school where her sister was studying, she continued her school studies in Tel Aviv and then earned a place to study art at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. She had her first solo exhibition in Jerusalem in 1943.
Awarded a British Council Scholarship to study at the Slade School of Art, she came to London in 1947. After graduating from Slade she went on to further her skills under the tutelage of Polish-born painter Josef Herman whose richly dark figurative paintings were a major influence on Hamermesh’s own work. In 1960 Hamermesh had a solo exhibition at the Brook Street Gallery in Mayfair, London.
Invited to the exhibition was the dean of the Polish National Film School in Lodz, whom Mira had met the year previously on a “pilgrimage” to the city of her birth, her fist visit there since 1939. The spontaneous visit to the Film School was a turning point in her life. Hamermesh was increasingly frustrated with the limitations of painting and yearned for the larger canvas of films to tell her stories. Following the dean’s visit to her exhibition she was offered a place at the film school, one of the first students from the West to be invited.
She studied in Lodz for four years (1961-65), and directed a number of short films over that period including BLACK POMPEI (1962) a requiem for the Jewish cemetery in Lodz (where her mother was buried) and LESSON II, a short film about the process in which Russian prisoners of war were divided between those who could read and those who were illiterate.
She returned to the UK and directed her first documentary for British TV, END OF TERM (ITV, 1965), about the summer term production of THE TEMPEST at a Kent preparatory school.
In 1968 Hamermesh was one of a handful of foreign TV specialists invited to Israel to help in the creation of the country’s first TV channel. While in Israel she made a number of Hebrew-language films including FIGHTERS OF THE GHETTO, about a kibbutz in northern Israel which set up a museum dedicated to the fighters of the Jewish ghettos in Poland in Warsaw and other Polish cities. Her films there also included SON OR DAUGHTER, HASHISH KIDS etc, which are screened on Israel TV to this day.
In 1982 Channel 4 was launched in the UK. The publicly owned but commercially-funded broadcaster led to an explosion in the independent production sector, of which Hamermesh was one of many benefactors via her film company Sered Films (‘sered’ is the Hebrew word for film). Channel 4’s founding Chief Executive was Jeremy Isaacs, renowned producer of THE WORLD AT WAR for Thames TV. Isaacs and his head of programming Liz Forgan, both became champions of Hamermesh’s work.
Their first commission was MAIDS AND MADAMS (Channel 4, 1986), which dealt with the tragedy of apartheid seen through the emotional relationship between black domestics and their white female employers. It showed how the system of apartheid begins at home, where white-aproned black maids dedicate their working lives to tending the children of their white privileged madams while their own children were left in poverty and neglect in black townships many miles away.
The film won multiple awards including the Prix Italia, the annual prize for the best TV documentary of the year, the most coveted award for documentary TV makers. It was the first Prix Italia won by Channel 4. The film also picked up a clutch of other awards, including a Royal Television Society Award for Best International Affairs Programme and a Special Jury Award at the BANFF TV festival in Canada.
The second film was TALKING TO THE ENEMY (1987) which followed the relationship between a young female Palestinian activist living in exile in the US and an older Israeli editor working on a left-wing magazine. The meeting between Muna Hamzeh and Chaim Shur led to an exchange of letters between the two and ultimately an offer from Shur for Hamzeh to visit Israel and his family’s home at their kibbutz in the Negev.
The emotional meeting between these two victims of the Palestinian conflict – Shur’s son died while serving in the army, Hamzeh’s family fled Palestine following the war of 1948 – is filmed with great sensitivity by Hamermesh. Set in a landscape bristling with the realities of the killing conflict, the film explores the feelings and psychology of people living in enmity with no easy resolution to the bloody conflict.
The third entry in what Hamermesh described as her “triptych” of films was CASTE AT BIRTH (1990), which provided a revealing insight into the caste system in modern Indian society and the continuing discrimination against the so-called “untouchables” (Dalits). The film shows the daily humiliation suffered by toilet cleaners and road sweepers – all Dalits – and is a powerful testimony against the caste systems which persists to this day in many rural Hindu areas.
Although LOVING THE DEAD proved to be her final film, Hamermesh continued to pitch projects to British broadcasters on subjects she felt passionately about, including Roma gypsies, refugees and antisemitism. She also spent a year as a visiting academic at the Australian Film School in Sydney.
Right up to a few weeks before her death, Hamermesh was hard at work on WOMEN AND WAR, a project that reflected her very personal interest in how the lives of women I particular were impacted by war as mothers of soldiers, as warriors, as widows and as victims of rape and sexual abuse.
In 1990 Hamermesh was honoured with a one-week retrospective at the Jerusalem Cinematheque in which all her films for Israel TV were screened along with those for British TV and her Polish Film School productions.
In 2011, one year before her death, she was honoured with a mini-retrospective at the Polish Arts Festival in Southend where MAIDS AND MADAMS, LOVING THE DEAD and TALKING TO THE ENEMY were screened. Hamermesh was also interviewed on stage by novelist Fay Weldon, a long-time friend.
In 2013, one year after her death, the British Film Institute organised a mini-retrospective featuring her films MAIDS AND MADAMS and LOVING THE DEAD. Jeremy Isaacs, one of the key instigators behind this festival, gave the opening address while journalist and filmmaker David Herman – son of Mira’s mentor Josef Herman – moderated a Q&A.
In December 2019, BBC Radio 4 is scheduled to broadcast a one-hour dramatisation of Hamermesh’s memoir THE RIVER OF ANGRY DOGS. This is part of a major series for Radio 4 called THIS IS YOUR COUNTRY NOW TOO, a series of 7 new dramas, each featuring the story of a child or young person arriving on British territory as a refugee across the twentieth century. The series will feature young refugees’ stories from around the world and across the decades. Hamermesh’s story will represent the 1940s and will mark her journey from Poland to Palestine. Other dramas will concentrate on refugees arriving from East Africa in the 1960s, from China to Hong Kong in the 1970s and from Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Hamermesh was married to Richard Coopman, a chartered surveyor, in 1951. They divorced in 1965. She is survived by her son, Jeremy and grandchildren Benjamin and Anna.
Author and playwright Tallulah Brown was Mira’s assistant for the last few months of her life and wrote fondly about the time they spent together. She wrote this Tribute to her that was published in THE OLDIE magazine.