Find the heroine
Mira Hamermesh talks about women to Raymond Gardner.
Womans Guardian promoting TWO WOMEN
Some of my best friends are women liberationists. New cliché. Meet Mira Hamermesh, artist and filmmaker. She directs next Tuesday's documentary from Thames Television. It is titled TWO WOMEN. Mira says that the better way to devastate someone in Hungary, where part of the documentary is filmed, is to ask them if they are counter-revolutionary. The best way is to ask them if they are a feminist. They asked Mira. She said: " Look, I don't peer between your legs and ask what you've got there and whether you're making your contribution to society and if you are a masculinist." Suddenly the view from the god-knows-what floor of the Thames high-riser in Euston takes on a remarkable significance. Mira talks about the carnality evident in one of her film's subjects. You note that the current conversation is not without its sexual twist. But that, after all, is what it's all about.
Mira wants to talk about her film. You want to talk about Mira. She said it has been difficult to be taken seriously as a woman on the 'wrong' side of the camera. In spite of very flattering reviews. Coy? More seriously: "I've often heard people say they couldn't entrust this or that film to a woman." (Mira's diploma film from the Polish Film School at Lodz was a 27-minute epic that called for all sorts of annoying and expensive items, like snow and an army unit. The school was nervous. Mira insisted it was to be the answer to any producer who might ask whether she, as a woman, could deal with a lot of men on location in adverse weather.)
Mira says: “I once pointed out to a man that if I were a Negro and he said that I couldn't do something because I was a Negro I would slosh him. Yet there he was saying the same thing to me as a woman and me sitting there smiling and about to make my feminine exit. Isn't it undignified?" Mira sees feminine grace as a cloak that hides a great many hardships and indignities. Mira doesn't go big on cloaks. " I don't complain, not because I'm not demanding, but because if I measure my life as I have lived it and what came into it, it seems to read much more like the life of a man. The war in Poland saved me from the embracing restrictions of being indoctrinated for motherhood." (Mira is divorced from her English husband and has an 18-year-old son) " I grew up being saved by men, literally. I was always part of a world in which what men did and the switch to being put in my place as a woman doesn't work. I can't be put in my place because I don't have any experience of where that place is."
Mira Hamermesh was an artist before she became interested in films: a graduate of the Slade school with polite reviews in the proper places and an exhibition at the Brook Street Gallery. She was also a writer (her first novel awaits a publisher). "I decided" she says "that that the only way I could integrate my literary and visual work was on film." She applied to the Polish Film School. "At first, they said no because I was Polish born and living in the capitalist bourgeois society, and since everything there is state-paid they saw no reason why they should support somebody from the rotten west. But at the same time the dean of the school wanted to open it to the West and
eventually I was made a test case. I regarded it as a bit of poetic justice to be given a film education in Poland." Her shorts were shown at the NFT, she wrote and directed two plays for BBC television and went to Israel to work and teach when the Israeli channel was being opened.
Mira's film for Thames is her first film excursion into the world of women. She says that she has never had anything to do with women's liberation as a movement. In fact, TWO WOMEN is an examination of the problems of equality rather that a bra-burning diatribe, and is likely to provoke a sense of unease rather than hectoring militancy. One of the women is English, an ex-shop steward in a Birmingham factory employing 800 women. The gate head slogan announces that "Quality and Reliability Starts Here."
Mary Rouse is 33, has a baby son, and a frightening sense of futility (The industry of motherhood bores her. The neat housing estate is not a community. Bingo and booze. Her colleagues describe her in terms of a female Lenin. The gaffer sang hallelujahs when she became pregnant and had to leave the factory).
Ssuzsa Szentagyorgyi is a 36-year-old Hungarian computer scientist, married but childless, a member of the communist party and of what Mira describes as the communist Dolce Vita. (She wants to be as clever as Einstein and as beautiful as Claudia Cardinale. Talks of women who choose the path of least resistance.)
While the English factory managers and trade unions mutter about installing crèches and the second shift system so mothers can return to work, the Hungarians, pioneers in this field, offer bribes to their highly productive woman power to forsake the factory floor for the bedroom and so produce another generation. The country's birth rate is low. The financial incentives to procreate are lower than what women can earn in industry.
Mary and Ssuzsa are at opposite social poles. Mira says that she wanted to choose a working-class woman from the consumer society. She says: " The English middle classes have been well documented on the screen and stage and in the novel. We know all about them - how they live, how they die, how they have babies, how they have nervous breakdowns. But there have been very few inroads into the experience of the working class, Alan Sillitoe invented the contemporary working-class hero, but not the heroine. We don't know anything about those women who support the hero. They are usually women to be fucked in the corners, who tolerate and absorb the anti-heroic goings on of the working-class male. It is very difficult to get a picture of the woman beyond the conventional love story attempts."
The programme is billed as a comparison of lifestyles on either side of the iron curtain. The similarities are more illuminating than the contrasts. Ironically enough, it is a man's voice in the film that provides which presents one of the most telling lines when he announces that this is a nine to five society which doesn't make allowances for children. Mira elaborates: "The making of the car is more important than the making of the child. More intelligence goes into creating conditions where good cars can be put out in the world and make a profit than creating a good child who can go out into the world and make a profit - meaning to make a good life. People with rotten lives cannot be profitable to anybody."
Apart from Mira's research assistant, the film crew was all male. Would she not have preferred an all-female crew? She says she doesn't believe in ghettos. And more: "It was very difficult for the male members of the crew. They suffered from unease because in some ways the film is an attack on the masculine stronghold, and if you are sensitive about such things you find that the film makes you dig deep. I have no answers. I don't offer solutions - unless the film talks for itself through the two people in it. It doesn't talk for me. I have my own way of talking. But I am with the spirit of what these two women say.”