Obituary: Donald Alexander

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The Independent Online
MAY I add to the affecting obituary of the film maker Donald Alexander (by Robert Kruger, 26 July), which I feel did less than justice to his pioneering documentary work, especially in Wales, during the 1930s? writes Dave Berry. Alexander will always be remembered as a creative force of the Thirties and Forties, but principally, I suggest, for his role in creating movies which centred on the devastating effects of the depression in Wales and elsewhere in the Thirties.

In 1935, as a socially conscious student at Cambridge, with a thorough knowledge of Russian history, he travelled to South Wales with some fellow students to see for himself the impact of the Depression on the valleys. He was appalled at what he saw and the group made a short film of the Rhondda which included footage of miners scrabbling in the coal heaps to bring back fuel for their own hearths.

Paul Rotha was shown the footage and this distinguished documentarian immediately offered Alexander a job in London on the strength of it. Shortly afterwards Ralph Bond directed the south Wales segment of the influential short film Today We Live (1936-37) for the Strand company, set in and around Pentre, Rhondda. Rotha was so impressed with Alexander's earlier Rhondda footage that he asked him to do some additional filming for Today We Live, effectively re- creating those shots of desperate men on the windblown coal tips taking coal. The resulting remarkable footage has been seen in countless documentaries since. Around the same time Alexander directed Eastern Valley - which was not about Scotland, as Mr Kruger implied, but set in a pioneering agricultural collective for unemployed men in Gwent. Once more Alexander demonstrated his great flair for evocative imagery and his ability to see the past in the present.

Both Today We Live and Eastern Valley were ground-breaking works made at a time when the British mainstream cinema was chary about even acknowledging the Depression and even more reluctant to show images of trade unions or men binding together for the common good. These films are a valuable contribution to the Welsh cinematic heritage.