I, Dolours presents one woman’s story of life and death in the IRA, for whom the Good Friday Agreement brought no peace of mind. A member of a crack, secret IRA unit run by Gerry Adams, Dolours Price led the first team to bomb the centre of London in 1973. Before this, she was a central figure in one of the most notorious and controversial IRA operations of The Troubles: the murder and dumping into unmarked graves of people whose violent deaths the IRA wished to keep secret – the so-called ‘disappeared’.
Gemma Creagh talks to Maurice Sweeney about his documentary, based on lengthy interviews with Dolours Price and extensive reconstructions. I Dolours tells the anguished story of one of the few women who dedicated her life to the IRA only to be haunted by memories of what she had done and the realisation that it had all been for naught.
There have been a number of feature documentaries recently focusing on The Troubles. Is it getting easier to deal with living history?
Yes. I think it’s getting easier. It’s no accident that this year and last year we’ve had No Stone Unturned, I Dolours, A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot, Bobby Sands: 66 Days. These are screening and being understood by Irish and international audiences. It’s not the usual Prime Time Investigates – these films are about bigger stories and bigger themes. Maybe we’re achieving that distance where we are being able to talk about it.
For me, I, Dolours felt very timely, because it was a great analogy of the North. I think filmmakers in Ireland and the new generation want to tackle those subjects on the bigger screen. Also, I would argue that there has been amazing work that hasn’t been given prominence because it was on TV. There has been an element of snobbishness to a certain extent with films released on the bigger screen garnishing more praise. These are things that have been explored on TV but they are being treated as themes and stories rather than political investigations, which I think is important. I think also it’s a sign of a generation of Irish filmmakers maturing.
Regardless of that snobbery though the shift in distribution platforms and the international hunger that there is for these true life stories – that’s the future, is it not?
It is and they are coming around to it. The demand for content has never been so high. Maybe 7 years ago we were all worried that with all the content production, values were going to go down. People got that wrong. So there’s a call for really well produced, intelligent content. Obviously, there’s a lot of bad true life stuff out there – but that’s the nature of the beast.
Structure is changing. Filmmakers are also thinking about something in four parts now. It doesn’t have to be contained within 90 minutes. It’s going to be interesting for documentary filmmakers in particular as to how they choose to tell a story and what type of stories they decide tell – there’s scope to think bigger and still get those nuggets of human experience in those films.
It’s interesting you say that because after watching this film I was imagining it as series – there’s a strong female anti-hero who’s been pushed to the edge and pressured into extreme action. Breaking Bad meets The Americans.
As a drama, certainly you could imagine that – thanks – I’ll go back and write that now and I’ll use that tagline!
I noted that you had been trying to get the project together for a while. How did it eventually come into fruition?
It came on the back of a failure in getting of another project off the ground with Ed Moloney, the journalist. We were trying to do a programme on the collusion in the murder of Pat Finucane with producer Nuala Cunningham. It didn’t happen. After it never came to fruition, we spoke about the possibility of using Ed’s 2010 interview with Dolours Price. So I read part of the transcript. I was amazed and enthralled by the story. I thought this is really powerful. I knew that this inside-story of uncomfortable truths was something special.
We got development money of the Film Board and eventually got to the phase where we had production funding before we asked ourselves what we were going to do with it.From my background, I was treating it as an historical doc. I had never met the woman. I had that removal which served the end product well because I could see it from a bird’s eye, from a different angle, from my point of view as a director. To be honest, we actually struggled a lot deciding how to make it initially. We had discussed different ways and I had even thought about shooting the interview again with an actress. I almost thought you could do this as a full drama from an interview given by the woman who was in the IRA. I kept thinking about how to do that. In fairness, Mick Mahon, the editor, kept saying – “look you have the interview, use it.” I don’t why I was reluctant initially to be honest with you, it was a form I had always wanted to try. So then I sat down with Mick and looked at the interview. We saw how brilliant and really powerful it was and from then on we decided that we were just using her voice. The film became more glued into shape then. It took shape in our minds.
That shape is quite interesting in the different forms you use to tell the story and achieve the overall effect.
It was about using three forms of filmmaking: archive, straight sit-down interviews and enactments, which is what I would see as her visual memory, they would interweave together. The enactments were important because we knew wanted to tell a strong visual story, and they add that sense of drama alongside the archive footage and interviews.
It was clear in my head when we went to shoot eventually. There was a lot of time to plan so we almost had the film edited to a certain extent in our heads to where the important points from the interview were.
The shoot itself was about 11 or 12 days. The edit was 15 weeks.
The film is an emotional rollercoaster and Dolours is such a complex character for the audience – how was it for you as a filmmaker?
The audience has to go through the same thing we went through. We were conflicted by listening to her and how we felt about her. There are certain scenes that really bring about that conflict and show this young woman who made decisions but who would ultimately suffered for them. We didn’t want to be too apologetic. You couldn’t agree with what she did, but I think you could understand. Also we didn’t want to shy away from showing the damage that she caused. You’re treading that line.
I thought Lorna Larkin was amazing as Dolours in the reenactments. She brings a real gutsiness to the role. How did she come on board?
I had other actors lined up who were great and one in particular who I think got scared of the project about doing something about the IRA and other reasons, so things were getting quite tight. I came across Lorna and I thought she had that sparkle in her eye and would really own Dolours. When we met, she was just so up for it – she wasn’t phased about it at all. We’re dealing with very tricky issues here IRA, killings, Hunger strikes… very contentious stuff. She was very brave in her approach. We did some tests with her in costume and she was great and she’s able to pull off different looks. I think having an unknown was important – she becomes more Dolours.
How was the film received and did you get any kind of feedback from people who were involved?
We did – and there were certain people who were saying we shouldn’t be making this film. Some people are surprised when they see it that it’s not a ‘Let’s Get Sinn Fein’ job. It’s not about that. When we showed it in Canada at Hot Docs, people got the emotional story of it. When we showed it in Britain, it was all about the political. Then when we showed it in Belfast, which is almost like returning to the scene of the crime, I was very nervous about that. It was a packed cinema with ex-IRA members in the audience. They questioned certain things but a lot of them were very positive about it. They thought it showed that this is what it was like. This is what the committed part of the IRA does and also the cruelty of it. A lot of the time when I see the film with audiences, it’s amazing, they are just silent at the end – I’ll take that as a compliment!
I, Dolours is currently in cinemas