Midge Mackenzie

Maverick campaigning film-maker

Monday 23 February 2004 01:00 GMT

Marguerite Ruby Anne Mackenzie, film-maker: born London 6 March 1938; married Peter Henry (marriage dissolved), (one son deceased, with Frank Cvitanovich); died London 28 January 2004.

When the new wave of feminism was gathering speed in the 1960s, a photograph of a defiant Midge Mackenzie being removed from South Africa House by two policemen, each holding an arm and a leg, appeared on the front page of The Guardian newspaper.

Mackenzie was a born campaigner, with a serious commitment to human rights. She spent most of her life fighting, most often other people's battles. Anti-war and anti-apartheid, she fought on issues including planned parenthood and women's rights, and was active in the trade-union movement.

But, although throwing eggs at Bob Hope at the Miss World contest in 1970 might have been more fun than sitting in an editing room, Midge Mackenzie soon realised that direct action was not as persuasive a propaganda tool as the medium of film and television, and it is as a campaigning film-maker that she will be remembered.

Mackenzie looked the prototype feisty red-headed Irishwoman, but was born in London of an Anglo-Scottish family at the beginning of the Second World War. Her great-grandfather was a 6ft 4in Highlander from the Isle of Skye. She was soon evacuated to the safety of her aunts in Dublin, where she lived her formative years.

Educated in London and Dublin, she returned to the Bohemian finishing school of Fifties Soho, where she met poets, artists and a parade of theatricals. The film industry, then as now, had a voracious appetite for highly skilled technicians who would obediently practise arcane crafts under the baton of directors and producers, sometimes with scant knowledge of the end-product. This was anathema to the young Midge Mackenzie, bursting with vitality and curiosity. This toing and froing from Dublin became a template for a peripatetic future, leading separate lives in the United States and Europe, making films wherever the action and the funding was.

In the middle of the Sixties, under the aegis of the BBC, she made a film series on the arts scene in New York. Feeling constrained by corporation bureaucracy, the fledgling film-maker set up Mohawk Films in Old Compton Street, London, in 1967 with the documentary director Frank Cvitanovich. They set up home together too, Midge becoming pregnant soon after. Their son Bunny was born more than two months premature, and kept in isolation for months, so Midge, in a frenzy of displacement activity, accepted an offer from Joffrey Ballet in New York to direct Astarte. This was to become the first live, multi-media production of its kind, considered groundbreaking even by today's standards.

Meanwhile, Great Ormond Street said there was little they could do for Midge and Frank's brain-damaged son. Glen Doman, who ran a clinic in Philadelphia, said otherwise. He put Bunny on a labour- intensive programme called "Patterning" that taught the remaining undamaged brain to function, with the help of a rota of 40 locally recruited volunteers. While Bunny developed, Midge and Frank made a film portrait of his astonishing progress. The prime-time screening of Bunny (1972) by Thames TV provoked a significant response from parents and the medical community, benefiting similar children across Britain.

Working as a maverick, outside the mainstream, Midge Mackenzie, with her passion for championing the underdog, forged a one-woman industry with needs-must attitude. She overcame the daunting tasks of raising money, making films, and getting them shown, with a clarity of vision and determination rarely achieved by those working in more popular arenas. Considering that most distributors would shy away from her chosen subject-matter, Mackenzie's successes were great indeed.

Her film Women Talking (1970) rode the "new wave" of feminism, and led to a television drama series about the Pankhursts, Shoulder to Shoulder (1975). The series looks compassionately at the outrages suffered by the first wave of the women's movement and along with the book that accompanied it is now, fittingly, in the school curriculum.

In 1992 Mackenzie dealt head-on with the taboo subject of child abuse, although the phrase was coyly omitted from contemporary descriptions of Prisoners of Childhood. In a psychological regression into childhood trauma, actors worked with therapists to relive their own pasts.

The banning of Women Talking connected her with the banned work of the Hollywood director John Huston. Huston's films made for the US Army during the Second World War had been considered unpatriotic (i.e. anti-war). Mackenzie's interviews made with Richard Leacock resulted in an award-winning documentary, John Huston - War Stories (1999), completed after the army deemed the Huston films fit for consumption half a century later.

It is ironic that Midge Mackenzie died of a heart attack which was unrelated to the three occasions on which she fought cancer and survived. Her tenacity of spirit shone through her work as well as her life.

She lectured in many universities and film schools, and in 1993 was a founder of the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. She encouraged successive generations of film-makers, always staying ahead of new technology. The digital revolution freed her from some of the financial burdens of film-making, her output mushrooming; and it allowed her to finish her magnum opus, a pastoral epic, The Celtic Trilogy (from 2001), three studies of remote Gaelic-speaking communities in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

Mackenzie leaves many works-in-progress - her last completed project was an extraordinary portrait of a painter, Saving Faces. This examined the work of Mark Gilbert, and his portraits of patients of the maxillo-facial surgeon Iain Hutchison who, for various reasons, had had their faces surgically rebuilt. The results were tender, dispassionate and dignified and were exhibited, along with the film, at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2002.

Midge Mackenzie's home revealed a lot about her. It was full of Highgate angels and pendulum clocks chiming in Victorian unison. Her kitchen, laden with antiques, boasted an anachronistic fridge with contents sufficient to disqualify an Olympic team. Its door was covered in a rogue's gallery of rescued mutts alert for their mistress's smoky contralto.

Her appearance, no less dramatic, was almost intimidating: she stalked about in killer cowboy boots - spray-on jeans, Navajo jewellery, trademark stetson - with the confidence of Perrault's famous feline. You would believe that, in full regalia, Midge really could move mountains.

Laurie Lewis

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