West Hampstead film-maker exposed social injustice

Film-maker Mira Hamermesh, who has died aged 88, drew on her experiences of persecution during the Second World War to direct award-winning films about social injustice.

Ms Hamermesh, of Canfield Gardens in West Hampstead, felt most proud and won the greatest critical acclaim for her 1985 documentary Maids and Madams which scooped the Prix Italia – one of the highest honours afforded to documentary directors.

The film, which aired on Channel 4, also won the Royal Television Society award for the best international affairs programme.

Her 1991 film Loving the Dead, a study of how Poles of that day still lived in the shadow of genocide, attracted the attention of Stephen Spielberg, who sent a letter saying how much the film had affected him and reinforced his conviction to make Schindler’s List.

“Loving the Dead was one of her most personal films and she was thrilled to get a letter from Spielberg,” said her son Jeremy Coopman, aged 58.

“It meant a lot to her because he was mainstream and she was more arty so it meant a lot that her film moved him.”

Born in Lodz in 1923, the film director fled Poland with her brother, leaving her parents behind. Her mother died in a Jewish ghetto and her father was killed at Auschwitz.

Most Read

During the war Ms Hamermesh started to study painting in Jerusalem before turning her hand to film-making.

Mr Coopman, a former journalist for entertainment magazine Variety, said: “She realised there were limitations to painting where she could not quite express enough of her ideas and that’s why she suddenly thought films were a much larger canvas.”

After studying at the Polish Film School, where Roman Polanski learned his craft, she embarked on a film career which spanned four decades, tackling subjects such as communism, family relationships, apartheid and genocide.

In 2004 she tried her hand at the written word and released her memoirs River of Angry Dogs.

When she died she was half-way through a book titled Sex and War, which sought to draw together the narrative threads of her documentaries.

Her son, who lives in Queen’s Park, said: “It’s an exploration, a wide-ranging study of women as mothers of soldiers, mothers of killers, women who were raped during war. I’m looking for a publisher at the moment to use it as a monograph.”

Ms Hamermesh was a regular walker on Hampstead Heath and lived in West Hampstead for many years.

She spent much of her time socialising with the literati and artists of Hampstead at Cosmo bar in Finchley Road.

Feminist writer and former Primrose Hill resident Fay Weldon said: “Mira was perhaps the most exotic of us, out of Poland via Israel, international while we were local, serious when we were frivolous, indignant when we were complacent, feminist while others weakened.

“She was enormously brave and mysterious in how she defied dangerous political barriers to study at the Polish Film School. Her moving, upsetting documentaries managed to escape the stultifying censorship of the day.”