Film-maker with a ‘faultless painter’s eye’ who won several awards, including the Prix Italia for Maids and Madams, 1985, for Channel 4
Mira Hamermesh, who has died aged 88, was a film-maker of the first rank. Several women have made, or are making, superlative documentaries for British television. Hamermesh was of their number. The films were carefully constructed and beautifully composed – the writer Fay Weldon said she had “a faultless painter’s eye”. But they also dealt in ideas; Mira made us think.
She was born in Lodz, Poland’s second city, the youngest of three children, to middle-class Jewish parents. Around the time of her birth, Lodz had just over 600,000 inhabitants; 200,000 of them Jews. In September 1939, the Wehrmacht arrived in Lodz. At once, they made it brutally clear that Jews would have no rights, no place there. In November, Mira decided to leave; she would try to reach an elder sister, a Zionist, who had gone to Palestine. Escorted by an older brother, against her parents’ wishes, she set out across occupied Poland. She was 16 years old.
She reached Soviet-occupied Lvov (now Lviv), where her brother was arrested as a spy and sent to the gulag, which he managed to survive. On her own, she went on to Vilnius in still-neutral Lithuania, and then by sea to Palestine. The hazards of this journey gave her mental strengths that lasted. Her mother died in Lodz ghetto; her father in Auschwitz. In Jerusalem, Mira studied at the Bezalel Art School, and in 1946 the British Council gave her an exhibition, followed by a scholarship, to study at the Slade school of art in London; in 1960 the Brook Street Gallery in Mayfair gave her a solo exhibition.
But painting was not enough: she had personal stories to fulfil. In 1960 she returned to Lodz to study at the Polish film school. The films she made there are still remarkable. One, wordless, shows a huddled mass of victims make a foiled attempt to escape the firing squad. Another is a requiem for the old Jewish cemetery in Lodz; four mourners with a coffin move like sleepwalkers through the landscape. In the UK, at Betteshanger in Kent, she made End of Term (1964), a quizzical look at her son’s prep school as it rehearses the headteacher’s production of The Tempest. She returned to Israel in 1968, to help set up Israel Television, making documentaries about the experiences of Israelis who survived the ghettoes or were wounded in the 1967 war.
It was always difficult for an independent film-maker to get work at the BBC or in ITV: they had their own staff, and there were only three channels. Mira pushed hard at doors that would not yield. Her persistence was a little intimidating. But in 1972 Thames TV commissioned Two Women, a 60-minute documentary contrasting the status of women in capitalist and communist societies: Mary, a factory worker and shop-steward from Coventry, and Ssuzsa, a Hungarian graduate engineer. What women could do with their lives was her recurring theme.
The door did not open again for more than a decade, but after the arrival of Channel 4, Liz Forgan invited her to make Maids and Madams (1985), a richly ironic picture of white housewives and black housemaids in wealthy Johannesburg. The maids tend lovingly to the children of the house; their own children are abandoned and neglected in distant countrysides. Apartheid begins at home.
Maids and Madams won C4 its first Prix Italia. Two other documentaries complete a trilogy. In Talking to the Enemy (1987), a radical young Palestinian journalist meets, in Washington DC, an Israeli “peacenik” journalist; their grief, the Palestinian for her homeland, the Israeli for his son killed in action, unites them. Caste at Birth (1990) shows the lives of the untouchables in India.
In 1991, it was back to Poland for BBC2, to make Loving the Dead, to show Poles living in the shadow of the millions murdered there in the war. She peopled streets and townscapes with their ghosts. She lit a candle for her mother. Loving the Dead is her masterpiece; it brings her full circle.
In 2004, shepublished her memoir, The River of Angry Dogs, an account of her teenage escape; the critic John Carey called it “simply wonderful”. In Jerusalem there was a retrospective of her work at the Cinematheque in 2005; in the UK, the Polish Arts festival in Southend-on-Sea showed three of documentaries in 2011. Her many awards included best international affairs programme from the Royal Television Society in 1986, the special jury award at the Banff festival in 1986, and the Golden Gate award from the San Francisco international film festival in 1992.
In 1962 she married Richard Coopman; their son, Jeremy, survives her.
• Mira Hamermesh, film-maker, born 15 July 1923; died 19 February 2012
from Jeremy Isaacs