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'Interviews With Irish Women Filmmakers' by Megan Sullivan
Text: Megan Sullivan ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
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Interviews With Irish Women Filmmakers
from an unpublished monograph
by Megan Sullivan (1999)
Chapter Two - Between Feminism and Nationalism: Pat Murphy and Film History
Critics and filmmakers alike regard Murphy with respect and admiration. The former salute her talent and intellect, the latter admire her ability and determination. When we met in a Dublin hotel in the spring of 1994, Murphy was gracious and unassuming. She had committed ample time for our interview and was keen to underscore the aesthetic and political significance of Irish film. Born in Northern Ireland and raised in the Republic and the North, Murphy attended art school in London and has been the recipient of a Whitney Award in New York. Her first film, Rituals of Memory, explored the role of memory. Maeve was produced with John Davis in 1980, followed by Anne Devlin in 1984.
Megan Sullivan (MS): Nearly every book and journal article published about film in Ireland begins with the difficulty filmmakers have securing funding. Can you talk about how you produced Maeve and why it was important for you to call it the first feature shot and cast in Belfast?
Pat Murphy (PM): In 1981 when Maeve was funded by the British Film Institute [BFI], I had just come from the Royal College of Art, and in those days when you attended the Royal College, you applied to the BFI for financing. When I applied, the BFI were actually interested in supporting work from Ireland. As of yet, there was no funding in Ireland apart from the Irish Arts Council, who gave a small grant each year for film. [Radio Telefis Éireann] RTE were not really taking up their responsibility as far as developing an independent film industry; rather, they would often supplement other support. The BFI awarded the film a grant and RTE contributed about 10,000, which was really quite a good deal for RTE. They got a contemporary film made about the North without any real production risks. The BFI were taking a risk by working with me, an unknown entity. Also, they had an agreement in those days with the British Union whereby the film was a communal activity, so everyone was paid the same rate. I liked this because it was fair.
When I said that Maeve was the first feature shot in Belfast, I was trying to generate interest in the film. I was differentiating myself, although in hindsight I also recognize that I was claiming a kind of authenticity for my film that I was actually ideologically opposed to. When I made Maeve with John Davis, we were arguing against the typical documentary style of filmmaking that had distinguished film in the North to that point. Documentary was seen as realism because you were there with a camera and so that was the truth, but I felt very strongly that documentary was fiction because the shots were chosen and because of the politics of the person with the camera. Thus, I decided that if Maeve were fictionalized, we would have more scope to tell the truth. Yet I acknowledge that when I claimed an exclusive slant to filming, I was doing what I was critiquing, but I also had to garner interest in the film.
MS: What was it like when you arrived back in Ireland to make a film?
PM: When I came back to Ireland, there was something so interesting happening here. I didn't know until 1978 and 1979 that there was such a thing as Irish film. I had grown up here and in Belfast, and then I moved to London. I had no notion of a movement of filmmakers in Ireland. Then I began to see these films which were all by men--Thaddeus O'Sullivan's On A Paving Stone Mounted and Bob Quinn's film--there seemed to be a really interesting energy. There comes a time when suddenly each country's national cinema starts to do really interesting things. In the 50s we saw the era of French cinema, in the 40s it was Italian neo-realism, and in the 60s it was German cinema. I thought that the 80s was going to be Ireland's turn. When I came back, there were not any feminist filmmakers. There were people here like Leila Doolan and Patsy Murphy who were doing incredible work, but they weren't going to direct feature films. It was apparent to me that there were so little resources in terms of funding that to come in and talk about a separate conscience or a separate way of making film or women's films, was going to go nowhere and that what I had to do was just get a film made.
MS: Do you think you could make Maeve in Belfast today?
PM: No. I know Orla Walsh worked in Belfast, but I don't think one could make a film like Maeve there now. Because of the way the North has changed in the past few years, I don't think you could put people under that kind of pressure. When we made Maeve, the North was gearing up for the first hunger strike in 1980; the second hunger strike started in 1981, when the film was coming out. One of the reasons we made the film was because we wanted to reach an audience that were only used to looking at issues in the North of Ireland in a particular way: they were used to seeing things as they appeared on the ten o'clock news from BBC. By the time Maeve was produced, we thought the audience in Belfast had disappeared because everything was so down to the wire about the hunger strike. The level of oppression, the level of paranoia within a community that was watching people die from hunger strikes, was so huge that to then arrive back and say look here's this film about women in Ireland was irrelevant.
The space for those kinds of arguments was beginning to diminish in Britain as well. In fact, I think one of the reasons the film got funded at BFI was because it was one of those key points, which I think are happening now because of the peace initiatives, it was one of those points when you sort of felt something was going to happen. There was a possibility that a film like Maeve could give information that could help some people, but then the whole thing got changed. It went in a very different direction. Yet at the same time, this was not necessarily a bad thing because even though Maeve was so much of its time in terms of my own thinking about film and politics, the issues haven't become old fashioned.
MS: It is obvious that Maeve analyses Republicanism and feminism. How does the film speak to feminism and Unionism?
PM: I don't think it does. People often question the lack of Unionism in Maeve, and I think this lack occurs because of my background. I don't come out of a Unionist background. I think the more important question we should ask is why aren't Unionist women making film? A number of people have tried to address this, and they have suggested that Republican women have a different relationship to the state. Ten or fifteen years ago there was a sense that there could be a feminist solidarity across political lines, but I don't think people feel that way today. What's transpired now is that feminism is not fixed: women who are feminists here [the Republic of Ireland] experience their lives differently than women who are living in the North of Ireland, and I don't think it is possible for a person to make a film that can be projected across circumstances. Thus, rather than attack Maeve because it doesn't address Unionism, we need to wonder why we have not seen film by Unionist women. Because Unionist work was not censored or prohibited, we have to ask, in a curious rather than a critical way, why we don't see film by Unionist women. Maybe such film exists, but it's hidden. Maybe women are making film, but they don't see it as entering the world. I could not say.
MS: Throughout the last several months, I have been talking to women in the Republic and Northern Ireland who are debating the issue of nationalism and feminism or Republicanism and feminism. Their debates prompt me to notice the exploration of feminism and nationalism in Maeve, and to wonder if this level of debate is going on within the Unionist movement as well.
PM: I don't see it, but then again I'm not part of that movement. Also, there are films that deal with Unionism, but they're not women's films. When Thaddeus O'Sullivan's December Bride came out it was so interesting because it is such a very good film, and it also appears to give a voice to a part of Unionist culture that previously had no voice. Yet, I've also seen plays and read stories by authors who are Catholic and who are writing about Protestantism, and this can be seen as a kind of imperialism.
Ultimately, I think Unionism is an extremely reactionary set of political ideas; I think that about Republicanism in some ways too. I also think that when women start to create art, they move away from Unionism. There have been a number of women who came from a Unionist or Protestant background and started to write, but then distanced themselves from their heritage. In Unimaginable Revolutionaries the historian Margaret Ward says she thinks feminism is likened to Republicanism because Republicanism has a tradition of rebellion and dissent and it questions authority. Feminism would not be an extension of Republicanism, but there is already a framework for these ideas. This may not be the case for Unionism.
MS: Can you talk about the one scene in Maeve where we do see a connection between Maeve, a Catholic girl, and a Protestant woman?
PM: The thing about this scene is that it really happened to me. That's not to validate it, but Maeve is in a situation where her way forward is to be negative. She does not have faith in people, and here she is in a situation where a woman she does not know has approached her out of kindness. The woman is a person who sings to her and truly believes her song can be a healing thing. The Protestant woman who visits Maeve's hospital room is not naive; rather, her faith is very simple and direct and that itself is healing. Yet this interaction, this healing, can only happen in a very odd situation such as a hospital ward.
MS: I guess I'm asking what kind of feminism can reach all the women alluded to in Maeve, and I think you are answering by stating that there is no universal feminism, that we have to be careful of the notion that "sisterhood is global"?
PM: Yes, we have to be careful of that, but at the same time, we also have to be wary of getting to the point where we feel that we cannot comment on anything because it is not our particular experience. We have to be careful not to fall into political complacency. We see this in the distinction between the North and people in the South. In the North Sinn Fein wants the support of the people in the South. However, people in the South are in a very difficult situation because they might want to support the North at a human rights level, and that's fine. Yet, they are told that they cannot be critical of nationalism or Republicanism; they're told, "you don't live here; you don't know what we're going through; therefore you have no right to comment." Yet it's only 100 miles up the road. On one level people are being told that they have no right to comment because they do not know what people are going through, but on another level they actually do know because they are living closely to the problem and because they are taking the time to think about it.
MS: A little-discussed topic that emerges in the film is incarceration. In one scene, Maeve is in a Republican club and she defends her mother whom she says, "kept the family together" while Maeve's father was in prison. This theme of Republican women and prison emerges in the films that follow Maeve as well: Anne Devlin, Hush-A-Bye Baby, and The Visit. Do you think women's relation to imprisonment is significant?
PM: Yes, but in a very subtextual way. In Maeve it is subtextual because Maeve's father was lifted, or put in jail, as a mistake. He did not commit the crime. Yet this, being lifted for something you didn't do, happens all the time in the North. It happens so often that it is almost part of the culture, but Maeve does not accept it, nor does her mother. Her father's brothers would see themselves as the [Republican] community and would find Maeve's mother snobbish because she wouldn't accept being part of the resistance. She would not want such a life for her children, and I think this touches on issues of class. In a play I saw by Charabanc Theatre Company, you are invited to be critical of the mother because she wants to leave behind her old life. The father goes along, but he doesn't want to. The daughter is emotionally attached to her father. I remember feeling very confused because the play questions the stereotype that women are social climbers if they want to divorce their children from their heritage. The play forces us to consider that a mother's refusal to go along with her community may mean simply that women want their children clothed and fed. Thus, rather than criticize a mother for wanting to distance herself from her community, we have to ask why she is distancing herself.
Critics of Maeve have never addressed imprisonment because it is just an issue that's dropped in passing. The film indicates that the uncle would see Maeve's mother as a social climber; he and his cronies would not recognize her strength. Maeve's family has moved out of Belfast and is in a good-looking estate but because they are intimidated, they have to move back to their old home [in a Catholic, working class area]. I don't see it as a bad thing that people want to get away from a place that they find oppressive.
MS: In Anne Devlin the main character is imprisoned through most of the film. Also, in the first scene, she brings food to her jailed father.
PM: Yes. It's curious that you bring this up because it really is hidden. It's not really present in the film the way that the major issues are. But the thing about Anne Devlin and Hush-A-Bye Baby and The Visit is that so often in the North, when men are in prison, women are left to care for their children, find money to support the family, etc. People don't realize that. When people talk about peace and what it means in the North, the daily realities of people's lives are not perceived and that's why the film is so important because it actually, in a very intimate and small way, gives us access to what is often forgotten. The way Orla approaches the North is quite different from the way I did. Orla focused on something very intimate and very specific, women whose husbands are imprisoned, to make something much more than a simplistic short. Hers is a very important film really.
The thing about Anne Devlin is that prison and the Republican movement are inextricably linked. It's part of the culture: imprisonment would have to appear in a film dealing with Republicanism, the North, and feminist issues because there really is a history of incarceration in Ireland. When I read Anne Devlin's journal, what struck me was how modern things are in terms of the historicity. If people were in the film in modern dress, the story could be happening now. We still see women today who are excluded from history; when they are imprisoned or waiting for their imprisoned fathers or husbands or brothers, they are forgotten.
When I returned from London, I appreciated that male filmmakers were addressing how they felt about Ireland; at the time, this was new and it signaled people's opportunities to create art. But now I think there is a problem, because I think what filmmakers who were telling a particularly male story were doing was obliterating women entirely. The films all became father-son problems, and in order to exist and be a woman filmmaker, you have to address this. The thing is, the men don't have to. There's a large audience for them that doesn't want to be bothered by that stuff, so they can go on and do what they want to do and feel they are being radical in their own way with the kinds of issues they are dealing with. It is a problem. I don't see it as a generational issue, because I can't think of any younger male filmmakers who are doing it differently.
MS: The only change I've seen is Stephen Burke's After '68.
PM: I haven't seen that.
MS: I think his film might be significant, because it focuses on a female protagonist and how she becomes politicized in her own way. Yet you still get new films made by men here, and they provide the same old stuff; I mean, in one new film a woman is quite literally voiceless.
PM: Are you thinking of High Boot Benny?
PM: I see what you mean, but I think that film actually uses the woman as a metaphor or an allegory. She is made to stand in for Ireland and of course there are problems with that. Some of Anne Devlin was silent because Devlin refused to speak. Critics wrote that because in Ireland the tradition of informing was so shameful, silence was powerful.
MS: I do see what you mean, but I worry that at times we get the same old images of women in the Republic and Northern Ireland, and that these images make it difficult to portray actual females. For example, I think that one of the reasons Neil Jordan's Angel initially garnered support was that it portrayed women in a predictable, stereotypical, way. In other words, I think that there are certain stereotypes of Irish women that international funding agencies understand, and films get funded if they conform to these expectations.
PM: Yes, exactly. You're right. It's like whoever read this script felt they knew what was going on in Ireland. I've gone to people with scripts, and I've been told that the script doesn't reflect Irish life. I remember traveling in Germany and sitting with people who would say, "But it's not like this for women in Ireland," and I'd say, "It is." Their sense of the imagery and description of Irish women was so strong that they could not challenge it. I think people's perceptions of cultures have a particular manifestation in Ireland, but I also think that worldwide, women aren't seen as human beings. Women are made to stand for a lot of things.
MS: Each filmmaker with whom I've spoken has talked about you and your films' influence on her. How do you feel about being the first female filmmaker?
PM: I think that my position has less to do with me and more to do with funding considerations. I had the opportunity to make films at a time when nobody else did, and then the funding disappeared, so the earlier films stand out. If many, many women were making films, there wouldn't be that focus on my films particularly.