David Deignan takes a look at Land Without God, an intimate portrait of a family coming to terms with decades of institutional abuse and the impact it has had and is still having on their lives.
Land Without God is a raw, emotional and unflinching investigation into the effect that decades of repeated institutional abuse has had, and continues to have, on Gerard Mannix Flynn and his family. Flynn, who co-directs alongside Maedhbh McMahon and Lotta Petronella, bravely steps in front of the camera to act as our guide through his own harrowing story.
He is our narrator, speaking to the audience in voice-over monologues, and our protagonist. While the film is framed around his family’s experiences (he conducts a host of raw, visceral interviews a host of them on camera – apparently the first time that they’ve truly opened up to each other about their shared childhood experiences), this is Flynn’s story first and foremost. We learn in great detail of the injustices inflicted upon him as he revisits the decaying sites of the reformatory schools and juvenile detention centres where he suffered in his youth. He remains staunch as he recounts his visceral stories for us, but there is a fierce emotion – a mix of sorrow, frustration and sheer anger – which underpins his every bitter word.
The documentary is broken into chapters, each one detailing a different, difficult period of Flynn’s upbringing and, through his and his family’s stories, it accounts to a shocking exposition of the extent to which Irish children have been grossly mistreated in institutions throughout the years.
The atmosphere at the film’s Dublin International Film Festival was noticeably charged, with many of Flynn’s family in attendance, which really highlighted the film’s nuanced balance of tone. It’s understandably heavy going for the most part, but it injects humour at smart intervals to break the tension.
Land Without God is no-frills, and pulls no punches. Flynn and his extended family have been torn about, both individually and collectively by cruelty, but they come across as intensely steadfast – and acutely aware that they’re far from the only ones to have been mistreated in similar circumstances. Their admissions are intensely moving, and their sheer honesty must be admired. They display such fragility onscreen, and deserve immense credit for their bravery.
The film isn’t without its issues, mind At 65 minutes it’s relatively short but the pacing is still uneven while it can be repetitive, especially at points during Flynn’s long monologues. But these are small complaints. This is powerful cinema, which tells a story which needs to be heard and deserves to find an audience.
The message at the centre is that, for the abused, justice has proved to be little more than a word in a dictionary. It would be foolish to think that forms of institutional abuse are consigned to Ireland’s history and in this sense, with an eye on contemporary prisons, care homes and the addiction and homeless sectors, Land Without God is an important attack on past injustices which still feel tragically and painfully present.
Land Without God screened on 28th February 2019 as part of the Dublin International Film Festival (20th February – 3rd March).