Why do Jewish women excel at documentary-making?

Is it their feminine qualities of curiosity and sensitivity - or their Jewish youth movement training?

By Alex Kasriel, September 3, 2009
Victoria Hamburger has made films about anti-social pensioners and John Wayne Bobbit, the man famously mutilated by his wife

Victoria Hamburger has made films about anti-social pensioners and John Wayne Bobbit, the man famously mutilated by his wife

There is a new generation of British female film-makers making waves on UK TV — and many of them happen to be Jewish.

Over the past couple of years, these 30-something women have been busy making documentary films for Channel Four and the BBC on everything from fraudsters to Motown artists.

The tradition of Jewish women in documentaries began with people such as Vanessa Engle, who created the documentary everyone was talking about last year — BBC4’s Jews. She has been making films for the BBC for 20 years —her CV includes the engaging Brit Art series; a three-part documentary series called Art in the 60s; a study of Charles Saatchi, and the 2006 award-winning political documentary Lefties. “I’ve always delivered, that’s why the BBC keep commissioning my work — they have confidence in me because I’ve been around the block a few times,” she told the JC at the time of her award.

Another is the venerable Norma Percy, whose work has taken her to Iran and the Middle East to make films such as BBC2’s impressive Israel and the Arabs: Elusive Peace in 2005 and more recently Iran and The West, also for BBC2.

Now there is a new generation of women who are making their mark in the world of TV documentaries. A good example is 32-year-old Alisa Pomeroy, from north London. Following her job as senior producer on The Apprentice, she recently made the

I love getting into people’s lives, being able to be legitimately really nosy

controversial and well-reviewed Baby Beauty Queens — about Mini Miss UK, this country’s first-ever children’s pageant — which aired on BBC3. Her next film, which will be part of the BBC’s Wonderland strand, is called Intelligence and follows the lives of the winners of the University Challenge quiz show since the ’60s.

But this new crop of producer/directors seem to be quite unaware that they are in the company of so many other same-faith sisters.

“It’s not something that has ever occurred to me,” says Susannah Price, who is 32 and whose intriguing film The Great Piano Scam was shown last month on BBC1. “I know quite a lot of Jewish male documentary makers. Women are particularly good at it because they’re good at listening to people talk. Some of the best female documentary makers let the silence in. They just sit there and wait.”

Her reason for pursuing a career in documentaries was the opportunity it provides for travel. “I wanted to see the world,” she says. “I grew up in north-west London. It was quite a small, enclosed space and most of the films I make are abroad. I have always been curious about different cultures and my feet have always been itchy. What job can I do where I can see the world and travel and meet different people? Maybe it’s something about the wandering Jew.”

Manchester-born Victoria Hamburger was responsible for Chopped Off: The Man Who Lost His Penis, her film about John Wayne Bobbit, victim of wife Lorena who famously mutilated him as a reprisal for alleged marital rape. More recently, Hamburger made Natural Born Sellers for ITV and Anti-Social Old Buggers, about pensioners whose bad behaviour has caused them to fall foul of the law, for Channel 4’s Cutting Edge.

“I love getting inside people’s lives, being able to legitimately be really nosy,” she says about her decision to work in documentaries. “I love that moment where people suddenly have a moment of realisation about themselves or their lives. That happened with John Wayne Bobbit and it is quite a good feeling as a documentary maker.”

She says that women have a clear advantage when it comes to factual film-making. “We can get people to open up. That is a skill we have got. Women are good at taking the sensitive, empathetic approach. We like a good chin-wag so, of course, women turn to it as a career, and I have worked with a lot more women than men over the years. Also, I think the fact that women can get ahead in the media, especially in the documentary world, means that it is a path we want to pursue.”

Hamburger is currently working with a company called Immediate Films, developing the concept of biographical documentaries people can commission about themselves or a loved one. “Basically it’s the modern version of having a book written,” she says.

Thiry-one-year-old Sara Tiefenbrun, who made the BBC’s Martin Freeman Goes to Motown, which followed the British actor on a trip to Detroit to mark Motown Records’s 50th anniversary, gives socio-economic reasons for the influx of Jewish women into TV. “At the beginning of the 20th-century Jews were generally seamstresses or tailors, door to door salesmen and cigarette makers.

“Their children had more opportunities to take up traditionally safe professions like doctors, businessmen and lawyers. Our generation was provided with enough security by our parents to be able to choose a career that was creative and personally fulfilling, even if it involved some risk. My grandmother would have made a very good documentary maker but she never had the opportunities that

I had.” Tiefenbrun, who worked for a number of a years as a director at the BBC’s Culture Show, and is currently based in Australia, adds that her route into TV was helped by her involvement in Jewish youth movement Habonim Dror, which has a history of breeding television and film careers — one of its alumni is Sacha Baron Cohen.

“Growing up in Habonim, there’s a sense of creativity and a confidence you get from taking part in peulot [activity sessions],” she says. “I think that Habonim encouraged me and my friends to be socially active in our careers, and social activism is what drives a lot of documentary makers. Also, when you work on a Habonim camp, you build a kind of a universe from scratch, which is similar to the skills required when making a film.”

Meanwhile, Tanya Winston, 34, daughter of medical expert and broadcaster Lord Winston and maker of the recent Rock’n’roll Hotel and River Police documentaries on BBC1, as well as Laurie Pycroft: The Making of a Teenage Protestor for Channel 4, says she loves taking “something really normal and elevating into something bigger”.

But she adds it is hard to be an observant Jew in TV, which is why she is one of only a small minority. “I have never met another Orthodox Jew working in the industry,” she says.

“With a documentary you’re following someone else’s life so you can’t say: ‘I can’t film on that day.’ It’s a risk if you’re employing someone Orthodox to make a film. What if it all kicks off on a Saturday? I think I have lost out on some jobs because of it.”

On the upside, she insists that documentary people are generally a liberal bunch who are naturally curious about others. While they are normally non-believers themselves, they are invariably very interested in her own Jewish lifestyle. Maybe there is material for a documentary there.

    Last updated: 2:17pm, September 3 2009