Mira Hamermesh, pioneering film director

By Jeremy Isaacs, February 28, 2014

If I had to name the one element most sadly lacking in television schedules today, I would say at once, “the single documentary”. This is the film that tells you not what, as part of a series, you saw last week, the same subject in the same format, but the very opposite, a “one-off”, unlike anything you ever saw before.

Once, in fiction, as well as series and serials, we had the single play; authors worth heeding, creating as their fancy led them.

“Try this,” they would say, “react, consider and respond”. The single play, the glory of early television schedules, has simply vanished from the screen, replaced, to some extent, by an infrequent, in-house, feature-length film.

But the loss of the singleton’s quality is mostly made up by series and serials, many imported from abroad, from the United States or Scandinavia. And very fine they are too, from The West Wing to The Wire; from Borgen to The Bridge.

Their success reinforces the views of those who say that the archetypal form for television drama has always been the series rather than the single play. But I think that, in an ideal world, the television viewer would get to enjoy a little of both.

The loss of the authorial voice in today’s television is even more pronounced in non-fiction. Where now is the single documentary? Remember those, anyone? In today’s schedules, documentaries come not as single spies but in battalions. Mustering in long rows, like troops on a parade ground, historians, house-buyers, foodies and furry beasties queue for our attention. The still, small voice of the one-off documentary-maker is all too rarely heard, if it is heard at all.

As if to remind us what we are missing, the BFI will screen three one-off documentaries by a fine film-maker, Mira Hamermesh (1923-2012), a Polish Jew, who escaped from Lodz in November 1939. She managed to get to wartime Palestine, went to art school in Jerusalem, helped set up the Israeli television service, but after years of pushing at doors that wouldn’t open, made her best films for British television, ITV, the BBC and Channel 4 during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

Mira Hamermesh is notable in a world still not convinced that women play a full enough role in the making of films or indeed play sufficient roles of serious import on screen. Too often, some critics say, women on screen are merely decorative, rather than active in making big things happen as men seem to do. Mira, however, ticked all those boxes, and then some. Mira built her films around women with serious things to say. For that reason alone, her work seethes with interest still.

Each of the three hour-length films to be seen at NFT3 (on Tuesday and Thursday March 4 and 6 at 6pm) has a clout of its own. Talking to the Enemy (1987) brings a young Palestinian woman journalist to Israel at the invitation of an older Israeli editor whom she meets at a conference in Washington DC. The two talk, and in observing this dialogue Hamermesh’s film truly makes us think about the Middle East conflict.

In Loving the Dead (1991), the film-maker goes back to the Poland in which she was brought up and left in late 1939 at the age of 16, never to see her parents again. Her father died in Auschwitz; her mother in the Lodz Ghetto. In the film, Mira seeks out and finds her mother’s grave.

Maids and Madams (1986) uses women’s relationships, warm and pleasant on the surface, between the rich white householders of Johannesburg’s suburbs and the servants who have come to work as nannies in the city, far from the bantustans where their own children have been left behind. It is a novel way of gaining insight into apartheid; Maids and Madams was awarded the prestigious Prix Italia.

They don’t make one-offs like Hamermesh’s triptych today. These are films that stick in the mind. Each film makes compelling viewing, and is of particular interest to Jewish filmgoers.

Last updated: 10:45am, February 28 2014