Talent for tears
Film-maker Mira Hamermesh, whose work takes war, injustice and women as its themes, interviewed by Emma Klein.
The Times Review June 2nd 1990 promoting CASTE AT BIRTH
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 1985
As a film-maker, Mira Hamermesh has an un-fulfilled dream - to make people laugh. As she says. however: " I discovered, in film after film, that my real talent is to make people cry". Haunted by the concept of the "pieta", the image of the mother lamenting the death of her child is prevalent in almost every film and recurs at the end of her latest documentary, CASTE AT BIRTH, to be screened next Monday on Channel 4.
This is no gratuitous leitmotif: "The woman in my film who mourns the massacre of her family - but for the grace of god could have been a member of my family". A child in pre-holocaust Poland, Hamermesh , like her brother and sister, owes her escape from ghetto life and the hardships of war to the resourcefulness of her businessman father. She is indebted to him ,too, for an equally significant escape, from "the deprived and dispossessed" status of the majority of womankind. As "daddy's girl", she was "given licence to go out into the world and be at home in the world".
Hence the obsession with "war, injustice and women", which informs most of her films, is the result of intuitive rather than direct experience. A "privileged woman", able to relate to men as an equal from pre-feminist times, Hamermesh trained at the Slade school under Josef Herman and established herself as a figurative painter of repute. A major exhibition in the brook gallery in the 1970s, favourably reviewed by Edward Lucie-Smith, had as its salient theme " the image of a seated woman or girl…sewing, drinking from a cup, or just sitting", a natural precursor of her determination as a film-maker, to increase women's visibility. By "giving the screen as much as possible to the female presence in conflicts and public issues of importance", she is challenging the "mother courage" ideal which consigns women to picking up the pieces.
In renouncing the contemplative life of a painter for the chaos and bustle of the film world, more suited to her restless temperament, Hamermesh was taking on a medium in which she could exploit her visual flair and love of storytelling. A pilgrimage, in 1960, to her mother's grave in Lodz, Poland, led her to the renowned Polish film school, where she became the first westerner to win a scholarship.
The insight she gained into both sides of the iron curtain from four years of commuting between Warsaw and London. And intimations of feminist consciousness inspired her to make TWO WOMEN for Jeremy Issacs at Thames Television in 1973. By choosing as protagonists a working-class woman in Birmingham and a privileged, intellectual part member in Budapest, Hamermesh inverted the perceived cultural stereotypes and created a chink in the iron curtain through a female perspective.
On another level, her journey to Poland resurrected a relationship with her mother she had barely known. Nowadays, as a result of her "bondage" to her mother's "incomprehension and dispossession", she feels impelled to "explain to her the life she never saw" by travelling around the world, making films and using her eyes on her behalf.
The vital link between her mother, an outcast after the Nazi invasion, and the women of the "untouchable" caste she saw in India, clinched Mira's decision to make CASTE AT BIRTH, which completes what she, as an artist, perceives as a triptych of award-winning documentaries about conflict, conceived in the early 1980s.
Winner of the prestigious Prix Italia, MAIDS AND MADAMS, shown in 1985, depicts racial tension between black domestics and their white employers, while TALKING TO THE ENEMY, screened in December 1987, humanizes the Israeli-Palestinian struggle through an encounter between a Palestinian journalist and an Israeli editor.
CASTE AT BIRTH is also a way of paying tribute to her friend, Dr Mulk Raj Anand, who wrote the Untouchables (now a Penguin Classic) in the 1930s. A degree of subterfuge was needed to film so sensitive a subject in India, and reactions are likely to be impassioned.
But Mira Hamermesh is not deterred by controversy. As a Jew and a feminist, she is distressed by her powerlessness to change "the idea that at birth your destined the limits of your humanity are determined by other people”. If film-making is a passion and an obsession, it is also a way to share her Weltanschauung with a global audience.