Rebecca Graham praises Out of Innocence for bringing thoughtful sensitivity to a difficult moment in Irish history which resonates to this day.
Situated in a deconsecrated church, Triskel Arts Centre is an appropriate setting for the sold-out screening of Danny Hiller’s timely new film, Out of Innocence. Hiller’s second feature film is based on the infamous Kerry babies scandal of 1984 in which a prejudicial Garda investigation led to the wrongful arrest of a young woman, Joanna Hayes, for the murders of two babies. Intensive media scrutiny of the case led to a tribunal which judged the Gardaí to have carried out a deplorably inadequate investigation and revealed Ireland’s damaging and limiting attitudes to women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
In Out of Innocence, the protagonist, Sarah Flynn, lives on a farm with her family in Co Kerry. Sarah is having an affair with a married man, Páidí, and together they have a daughter, Una. Sarah is pregnant again but hides this fact until she goes into an early labour. One of the film’s most powerful and lasting images is the solitary figure of Sarah, hunched over in agony among the haystacks in a barn on a cold, dark night. The next scene is of Sarah coming into the kitchen in the early hours of the morning, her long white nightdress covered in blood, being met by her mother’s stern and fearful expression. In the elliptical and stuttering conversations that follow, the family learns that Sarah has lost her baby.
In 1983 a referendum was held to include an amendment to the Irish constitution to acknowledge the equal right to life of the unborn as that of the mother, confirming Ireland’s anti-abortion stance. Early in the film, while the family are at mass, the priest reminds the congregation of the joyous passing of the eighth amendment into the constitution, highlighting the conservative and prudish influence of the Catholic Church on this rural community.
Out of Innocence opens with a shot of the majestic and beautiful Atlantic Ocean and the sounds of waves crashing against the rocky shore. This peaceful vista is soon shattered by the discovery of the body of a baby washed up on the beach. The Gardaí arrive and unceremoniously place the baby in a cardboard box, an unprofessional and uncaring gesture which sums up the attitudes of the Gardaí throughout the film. This sets off an investigation which inevitably leads to Sarah, who has recently been admitted to Tralee General Hospital suffering from the effects of a suspected miscarriage.
In the Q &A after the screening, Hiller said his research into Ireland’s recent past led him to a number of similarly tragic stories about young women and he wanted to uncover those women’s voices. The many lingering camera shots of statues of the Virgin Mary are a stark reminder of the devastating case of Ann Lovett, a fifteen-year-old girl who, on a cold day in January 1984, gave birth to a baby boy at a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Passers-by found Ann haemorrhaging badly and her baby boy was dead beside her. Ann died later that day. Her local community refused to comment on the reasons that might have led Ann to give birth secretly in such a place. Mary, the virginal mother who silently and stoically conforms to the will of God, epitomises ideals of womanhood women were expected to embody in a country where the machinations of state were inextricably intertwined with the morality of the Catholic Church. Discussing the events which inspired the film in an interview with The Sunday Times, Fiona Shaw said: “There were other tragedies it bumped into, so it was a stream of sorrows at that time in relation to women’s bodies. And the fact that’s still an issue in Ireland is very sad.” (13th Nov ’16). This film is a timely intervention into current debates about the eighth amendment, with many feminist and human rights groups calling on the government to address the contentious Irish legislation on abortion.
Out of Innocence gives voice to the young women who have been abused and ostracised by the Catholic Church and the Irish state in its empathetic portrayal of Sarah and her family. The scenes in the Garda station are perfectly balanced to maintain a sense of realism while showing the increasingly forceful and coercive efforts of the investigators to extract confessions from the Flynn family. The skillful camera angles show the investigators, cast in shadows, ominous, omniscient figures, looming over the Flynns, taunting and terrifying the confused and scared family. The Gardaí isolate the family members, twist their words, lie and make threats, until each one in turn believes their only option is to confess to murder.
The makers of Out of Innocence should be commended for bringing thoughtful sensitivity to this important film about a difficult moment in Irish history which resonates to this day. Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s music deserves a special mention. It is powerful and poignant, enhancing the beautiful scenes of Ireland’s rural and coastal landscapes, and underscoring the fraught and turbulent emotional struggles of the film’s central characters. Fiona Shaw is flawless as the devastated, stoic, God-fearing mother who only ever wants to do and say the right thing. Alun Armstrong is convincing as the cold but determined Detective Callaghan. However, it is Fionnuala Flaherty’s measured performance that encompasses the film’s emotional heart. Her subtle and sophisticated portrayal of Sarah inspires deep empathy and compassion for all women who have suffered and still suffer at the hands of the Irish state. Sarah’s Aunt Patsy, complaining about the temperature in their small cottage, neatly sums up the attitudes that women have faced and continue to face in Irish society: “It’s so cold here. It’s always so cold here.”
Out of Innocence screened on 13th November at the Cork Film Festival 2016
The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November