For 40 years human rights activist and Jesuit priest Peter McVerry has railed against state negligence, the abdication of Ireland’s most vulnerable citizens and a legacy of political indifference that has caused the destruction of communities, forced removals, addiction and homelessness.
Marley McCallum takes a look at an hour-long documentary, in which McVerry re-lives those dark decades. Peter McVerry: A View from the Basement, screened at the 61st Cork Film Festival.
After the film’s screening at this year’s Cork Film Festival, director Kim Bartley noted that she wanted to try and tell Peter’s story through the story of the people he helped. Therein lies the essence of what this film is; as much social problem documentary as it is character study.
As the title suggests, Peter McVerry: A View from the Basement, recounts the life story of Fr. Peter McVerry, from his earliest childhood through to the present day. His character is always central to the narrative but the film subtly transitions into an exploration of the homelessness crisis in Dublin from the 1980s onwards. Neither story feels neglected or pushed to the side by the other. In fact, the film powerfully conveys how his personal story is so deeply embedded in the social issues he has spent his life working to improve. Both aspects inform and enhance one another in a way that feels unique to this man and this story.
A particularly moving element of the documentary is the voice it gives to some of the ‘lads’ Peter has helped along the way, specifically Paddy who has battled homelessness and a heroin addiction since he was a teenager. This micro-narrative within the overarching story of the film humanises the work that Fr. McVerry has dedicated his life to and confronts us with the notion that our society has demonised drug users and homeless people with little to no understanding of their lives. The respect that these men have for Peter and the bond that has been created between them is heart-warming to see and contributes to our understanding of his character, as well as the nature of his work.
Despite first being screened on television, it in no way feels out of place on the big screen which merely enhances its inherent cinematic quality. While nothing in the film feels particularly innovative, it is a documentary of the highest standard, deftly incorporating archival footage with contemporary interviews and footage. Perhaps questionable is the decision to have Fr. McVerry’s interviews in black and white. It adds little to the film other than to differentiate him from the other interviewees and it’s unclear why this would be necessary, but it’s a small issue in an otherwise well-crafted film.
The timeliness of the piece is evident at every turn and Fr. McVerry as the film’s central figure carries the narrative from its roots in the 1980s through to contemporary society in a way that effectively highlights the lack of progress that has been made and the persisting nature of the problems. Indeed, the post-screening Q+A focused primarily on the current reality of these crises and what can and should be done to combat them; an indication of this documentary’s power to inform social change. The fact that most of the questions were addressed directly to Fr. McVerry showed just how captivating a character he is and how eager people are to hear even more of his unique and nuanced perspective.
Peter McVerry: A View from the Basement screened on 16th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)