Kay Mander - Documentary Auteur

One of the joys of life is uncertainty of what the future holds and it's surprising how things happen in my business.

Shortly after I produced a DVD of 24 Square Miles, directed by Kay Mander, I was approached by a film student, Adele Carroll, who had met Kay and produced a 45 minute documentary, One Continuous Take about her life and work. A long while after, and following almost 12 months of research, and sometimes agonising negotiations with half a dozen film archives, I produced One Continuous Take - The Kay Mander Filmbook, a 2-disc retrospective of Kay's life and work.

The following is a biography of Kay Mander from the accompanying booklet written by Sarah Easen and Dr Toby Haggith.

One of the many women working in the documentary sector during the 1930s and 1940s, Kay Mander, along with most of her female contemporaries, has been little more than a footnote in documentary film histories despite her prolific contribution to the genre.  She began her career in the British feature industry in the 1930s working consistently for over sixty years until the 1990s, in a variety of roles including production and directing.

Mander was born in Hull in September 1915 but spent her childhood years in France and Germany. In 1935 she was employed as a receptionist at the Berlin Film Congress where she met delegates from the British film industry. They helped her secure a job as an interpreter for a German cameraman at Alexander Korda’s London Films when she returned to England, later moving into publicity, production and continuity. By 1937 she had become the first woman member of the Association of Cinematograph Technicians (ACT) and was to become an outspoken advocate on many union issues. Attracted to the burgeoning documentary movement’s political and social ideals in the years leading up to the Second World War, she was offered a job as a production assistant by Film Centre producer Arthur Elton at the prestigious Shell Film Unit who were making instructional films for the government war effort. By this time she had also joined the Communist Party and along with many of her documentary colleagues was blacklisted in the late 1940s.

Mander’s directorial debut was How to File, a training film for the aircraft construction industry. The Shell Film Unit was well-equipped with its own cameras, sound equipment, laboratories and post-production staff so was a good place for a fledgling director to learn her trade. By the time she left in 1943 she had directed a further four official films for the homefront propaganda campaign including two training films for the newly restructured Fire Service and one for the Ministry of Home Security. Although made for specialised audiences Mander’s understanding of the technical subject matter is evident in the clarity and simplicity of the films.

The move to Paul Rotha’s maverick production company in 1943 provided Mander with the opportunity to develop her filmmaking skills and political conscience. In Highland Doctor, about the Highlands and Islands medical service, she coached ordinary people to perform as actors (as opposed to acting in the roles they normally performed) and married documentary techniques with a dramatic narrative style. The film champions the idea of a state-run healthcare system, anticipating the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS) in the post-war years. At Paul Rotha’s company Mander was exposed to the more human side of the documentary movement. Like all employees she shot several sequences for the radical newsreel Worker and  Warfront which highlighted the role of those working on the homefront and their invaluable contribution to the war effort. She also directed the building trade recruitment film New Builders for Rotha.

Towards the end of 1944, Mander and her husband, the documentary producer Rod Neilson Baxter, established their own company, Basic Films, to make scientific and instructional films. At the time Mander was working on Penicillin, a film about the discovery of the drug, at the Realist Film Unit where her technical expertise was put to use shooting the scientific sequences.

Meanwhile, one of Basic Films’ first commissions was for the Labour Party election campaign and the resulting film, Homes for the People is one of Mander’s best films. It is also a remarkable social document. Partly inspired by the seminal 1935 documentary Housing Problems, Homes for the People is a more progressive and radical treatment of the problems of working-class housing than the famous inter-war film. Instead of focusing on the slums, Mander’s film argues that the housing situation of the majority of the population is sub-standard and she clearly advocates political mobilisation as the solution to poor housing. She elicited honest and heartfelt responses from her female subjects about the difficulties they faced in their everyday lives as well as their hopes for better living conditions in Britain after the war.

After the war, Mander continued making films for both industrial and government sponsors. One of these, A Plan to Work On, illustrated the replanning of the Scottish town of Dunfermline. The film constantly emphasises that the needs of the townspeople are foremost in a supposedly more egalitarian post-war British society. She also made a series of French language films for the Ministry of Education. One of these, La Famille Martin, won a British Film Academy Award in 1949.

By the end of the 1940s, both Mander and her husband had left the directorial board of Basic Films. Neilson Baxter went to Indonesia to help set up a film unit on behalf of the United Nations but Mander remained in Europe, directing films about the Marshall Plan post-war reconstruction of Europe.  Attempting to break into the feature film industry, as many of her male contemporaries from the documentary movement had done, she went to see Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios who told her that a woman director would not be able to control a male film crew.<

Disillusioned with the British film industry she joined her husband in Indonesia, writing and directing two short narrative films: The New Boat and Mardi and the Monkey. The latter film was made for the Children’s Film Foundation in Britain and was well received so she returned to England to direct another, The Kid from Canada. However she decided that she did not want to be pigeon-holed as a director of children’s films. Nor did she wish to make films just for the ‘women’s’ market.

Frustrated by the lack of other directorial opportunities, Mander returned to the continuity career she had begun in the 1930s, working for directors such as Francois Truffaut, Otto Preminger, Vincente Minelli, Anthony Mann, Terence Young and Ken Russell. The films she worked on include From Russia With Love, The Heroes of Telemark and Fahrenheit 451.

Kay died on December 29th, 2013, aged 98. My wife and I attended her funeral. Sadly only 11 people were there to remember her.