Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Maeve

Jack O’Dwyer gets caught up in the fractured narrative of Pat Murphy’s seminal Irish film Maeve, which screened at this year’s Cork Film Festival.

 

In an attempt to describe her state of mind as an artist during the appalling years of the Irish troubles, feminist filmmaker Pat Murphy has posited that the North suffered primarily from everyone trying to shoehorn it to fit snugly into their own system of beliefs. This is a clear starting point in an analysis of her seminal 1981 film Maeve, co-directed with John Davies, which depicts the problematic ways in which personal and political beliefs can coexist within a troubled nation, often leading to layers of conflict which act as further barriers to peaceful resolution. At its core the film portrays a sort of uprising through inaction, a tentative method by which an individual may behave if they feel that they are excluded from the promised land which lays at the end of the revolutionary road. Through its radical aesthetics and characterisation, the film offers a unique perspective on one of the darkest periods in the island’s turbulent history.

The driving force of Murphy’s film is the titular Maeve, seen in both present day 1981 and also in recurring flashbacks to unspecified times in the past. In the present day, she returns home to Belfast from bohemian London, fully embodying the stringent lifestyle of a feminist ideologue. In the past, with these nascent ideals starting to take shape in her mind, she is seen as a young adult who vows to escape from the hostile community which stifles her. Maeve, played with skilful restraint by Mary Jackson, is often a difficult character for the audience to relate to, likely a reflection of Murphy’s acknowledged debt to Bertolt Brecht and the so-called ‘’distancing effect’’ which he utilized in his theatre. Much of her dialogue is heady and intellectual, delivered as a series of feminist mantras which refer to metaphysical ‘’Woman’’ rather than earthly, anecdotal ‘’women’’. Traditional womanhood, devout Catholicism, revolutionary insurrection; Maeve chooses to shun all of these potential paths in an effort to gain her own autonomy and identity. In one scene, Maeve and her schoolmates are being forced to rote-learn a religious commemoration to the victims of the local conflict. Maeve instead stares out the window, demonstrating a conscious decision to shun the milieu in which her peers are enmeshed.

Acting as a traditional counterpoint to Maeve’s personal protest is her sister, Roisin, played by Brid Brennan. One masterful aspect of Murphy’s screenplay is the heightened importance placed upon storytelling, particularly in relation to how it enlightens the characters who take up the role of storyteller. Roisin tells a number of stories throughout the film, usually depicting some form of tyranny inflicted upon the population by the armed British guards who patrol the streets. One such story implies that Roisin and her friend were the victims of an attempted rape by an intruding soldier, but the nonchalance and humour with which it is told does little to convey the potential severity of the situation. Moments such as these subtly paint Roisin as a character who is caught in the flux, unwilling to critically examine her role as a traditional, oppressed, catholic woman. Despite her sister’s warning that marriage ‘’only keeps woman down’’, there is never the suggestion that she will follow in Maeve’s non-committal footsteps. Even further alienated from Maeve is their mother, Eileen, played by Trudy Kelly. A quiet well of frustration with little dialogue in the film, she is a helpless bystander to the rampaging tide of patriarchal nationalism in her nation, serving as the outdated archetype to which Maeve internally revolts. Perhaps the film’s most emotional scene takes place in a room filled with religious relics, designed by Eileen as a place devoted to her daughter’s future courting. Such a traditional fantasy comes off as absurd given the nature of Maeve’s character, with the scene soon devolving into a heart-breaking monologue from mother to daughter recounting the first time that Maeve boarded the plane as she left to London – ‘’You never looked back once to say goodbye’’. Tragically, this marks the only point in the film at which Eileen is given an extended opportunity to speak, with each word driving a further nail into the coffin that is their incompatible relationship.

The most articulate challenger to Maeve’s unique vision of nationalism comes in the form of her boyfriend/ex-boyfriend, Liam, played by John Keegan. Murphy has expressed the importance within feminist fiction of creating authentic, coherent male characters so as to create an equal playing field of debate. In this regard, the character of Liam is a triumph. A committed republican, he matches Maeve both in the strength of his personal convictions and the fierceness of his debate. The film’s philosophical assertions are founded upon a masterful series of scenes in which the two debate each other in various locations, their rival viewpoints clashing together in a captivating stream of insights and insults. Murphy’s idea for these scenes was that the two would cease to be characters for the duration of these debates, instead transforming into unfiltered mouthpieces for their espoused ideologies; a clear admission of her Brechtian and Godardian influences. The first of their debates happens upon Cave Hill, as they gaze upon a deceptively serene-looking Belfast in the distance. Maeve is first triggered into stating her defiant viewpoint as a response to Liam’s praise of lifelong nationalists, those passionate men who have ‘’been able to keep that image together through all the madness’’. Her issue lies in the fact that the romantic image of Ireland which has guided nationalism thus far excludes her as a woman, it leaves no space for her, she is ‘’remembered out of existence’’ as part of its clause. Next, in her rented apartment in London, Maeve speaks of her decision to ‘’withdraw from it’’, to distance herself from the ‘’country’s neuroses’’. To this, an apoplectic Liam castigates the cowardliness of her actions, pointing to the fact that those who have fought and died for the cause have not had the luxury of her aloofness and free speech, warning that ‘’you’re going to have to come back’’. Virtually every line of their gripping debates could and should be isolated and unpacked by viewers of the film; rarely has such a testament to the efficacy of the Socratic method appeared on screen.  Their intellectual sparring culminates near the film’s end as they saunter gloomily through Clifton Street Cemetery, mutually accusing each other of copping out of their ideals. At the argument’s climax, Maeve compares Britain’s treatment of Ireland to man’s treatment of woman, warning that, if Liam and his counterparts should someday be successful in their struggles, then women will ‘’recognize you as the next stage in their struggle’’. In a film which thrives upon exploring the intersection between nationalism and feminism, this stands as perhaps its most radical political expression.

The film’s challenging subject matter is reflected in the austere visual style which Murphy and director of photography Robert Smith choose to adopt. Considering that the film is set in an environment which features constant, often unexpected intrusions into the daily life of Belfast’s citizens, the cagey 4:3 aspect ratio feels suitably oppressive when viewed on a large screen, as if the characters must struggle in order to escape beyond the borders of the frame. This is further enhanced by the usage of a number of internal framing devices, often doorways, which further squash the characters in to fit their surroundings.  During the tense night-time scenes, the camera creeps behind characters or flits about from left to right, suggestive of the widespread paranoia which haunts the streets. Maeve’s increasingly disillusioned father, Martin, played by Mark Mulholland, returns in a series of scenes throughout the film during which he generally tells a story involving the local population, and these are among the film’s most intriguing moments from a visual perspective. In the first such instance, the camera suddenly wheels around to Martin as he interrupts his wife during a story, and frames him in the middle of the boxy screen staring directly into the camera as he completes a long, thickly-accented monologue. These scenes which feature Martin staring into the camera increasingly come to feel as if he is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. The subtle increase in intensity each time this occurs reinforces a sense of desperation and fear which has creeped into his character, culminating in the heart-breaking, quietly fearful words which he tells himself at the film’s closure. The film therefore arises from the lineage of European modernist cinema not only in its bold subject matter, but also in the way it creatively manipulates the filmic tools to give rise to new modes of artistic expression.

Maeve is comparable to Seamus Heaney’s famous ‘’bog poems’’ in the sense that it holds an abstract mirror up to this unspeakable Irish tragedy in a way which seems to shed cognitive and emotional light upon the subject without offering any form of trite solution to what is an endlessly thorny situation. The film is a whirlpool of ideas, of narratives, of memories, described by Murphy as a ‘’political document rather than a film’’. It feels like a political document not only during the war of words and ideologies at its core, but also in its harrowing evocation of a city where children play in the presence of armed soldiers, and searchlights cut through the dark streets like knives. One of the nation’s finest films, Maeve is a brave, important film, whose intellectual honesty and defiant spirit ought to inspire generations of Irish filmmakers.

 

 

Maeve screened on Thursday, 15th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival (9 – 18 November)

 

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Interview: Pat Murphy director of ‘Tana Bana’

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Pat Murphy’s documentary Tana Bana takes us to Varanasi, the ancient city on the Ganges where the uneasy peace between Hindu and Muslim hinges on the world-renowned silk-weaving. Because every single aspect of Varanasi life is fused with the production of handwoven silk, the existence of this ancient Hindu city depends upon Muslim weavers. Loosely structured as a day in the life of Varanasi, this unique, intimate documentary explores how the Muslim community of weavers respond to huge economic shifts in their lives and shows the difficulties they face in passing on traditional weaving skills to their children. The film also gives voice to the changing roles of women within this enclosed world.

Gemma Creagh caught up with Pat Murphy to find out more about her documentary.

 

First off, I have to say what a beautiful film you’ve made. I was drawn into this film. It was so visual and mesmerising. Tana Bana is a window into a world that we don’t usually see.

Thank you. Often people just have a view of India – or they go there and have a particular experience. They don’t really have access into how it works, how a world like that works. I loved making the documentary because my experience was like the viewer’s experience, getting that look through the window, as you said. What I wanted was for people looking at the film to experience what we did when we were there.

 

The local story of Varanasi is a universal theme. With the advent of technology, certain jobs and ways of life are becoming obsolete. We see in your film how this culture is slowly dying and how hard people are trying to survive in it. There’s a truth to it that really resonates in modern times.

One of the things that sometimes is problematic is when people often say: ‘Oh, it’s progress, you can’t intervene. It’s just relentless – that’s just the way is.’ If you are trying to talk against it, you come off sounding nostalgic, or that you are looking back into a previous time. But that’s not necessarily the case. I think that kind of view is a very depressed view of the world. It’s like we are not agents of anything. We are merely victims of the movement of time or the movement of capital and we cannot intervene and change it. I just don’t think that’s true. I think it is possible to intervene and change things. I guess one of the things I thought when I was in Varanasi was that if this weaving goes, this city will go. Some may think it’s quite medieval or something. But actually it’s not. It looks like it’s from the Middle Ages but at some levels it’s extremely modern in the way it is so integrated.

 

There’s a great a scene where the young school girls are asked about ‘love’ marriage and everyone unanimously agrees it will never work. This moment is fantastic in capturing those differences between our societies, and in the West, we think we know it all – but do we really?

One of the things some of the locals said to me when we were not filming was: ‘We know what you think of us; we have cable television!  But we know that in the West sometimes women have to go on the internet to find husbands. Why is the way we do things more problematic than that?’ I was setback on my heels by that really. Basically, there’s an assumption that we, as Westerners, know about feminism and we know what oppression is.

One of the things I found really challenging when I was there – I found the ground pulled from under me – was the notions of: what is freedom? What is respect? How many kind of feminisms are there? Because all those young women would see themselves as a strong feminist women, although they want to be married and they want to live within their traditional society.

The school teachers are the same. When I was growing up; my idea was to get away. It was a notion of freedom of getting away from the situation I was in. Going to college in England or going to New York or going somewhere else. It’s very powerful when these women say how educated they are, and that they want to stay where they are and improve the situation for women within the world that they live in. It’s very strong when they say that.

 

That’s exactly what came across in Tana Bana. The school teachers were such strong leaders moving the community.

Also, the thing about the teachers, one of the things that I think is important and is a point that is made in a subtle way in the film, is that it’s a Muslim school set up for the children of weavers because their educational situation was so bad. It’s a modern school but half the teachers are Hindu. That doesn’t mean much to us here but that is a huge statement in India. In a culture where Hindu and Muslim are often pitted against each other, there are places like Varanasi where tolerance and understanding is happening. I found that very impressive.

 

You mentioned earlier about the integration of the people in Varanasi, which is evident here on a wide scale, but there’s also a strong sense of home and unity there.

At the very beginning, I thought what I was going to do was make a film documenting the weaving processes. But just being there changed that. Being around those people and seeing how indivisible what they do is from the way they live and their family – and the fact that this thing is a very organic family enterprise.

 

So, the nature of the documentary evolved over time?

Yes. The more time I spent there and the more I made my own contacts, the film and my ideas about the film, really changed. When I was going there at first, all I kept thinking was that these weavers were victims of globalisation and somehow the film has to present this problem and solve it. I think one of the things that filmmakers do – and they have to do it, in a way – is to find the spine of the story. What is the storyline that is carrying you through?

In general, that is what documentary filmmakers do. It’s a very Western thing to do. Often filmmakers look for one person or one family and tell their story. Those documentaries or television programmes  are about someone in the developing world struggling against insufferable odds which they overcome. This is a human story that we all identify with.

But, for me, the reality of being in Varanasi upends all that. It just really challenges you. What I found when I was there was, that this was a whole city in which everyone was connected in some aspect to this weaving. Either they are weavers, or they are designers, or they are polishing the saris, or they are cutting the saris, or they are doing embroidery, or are mending the looms.

My point of view was to tell this story; it’s actually a city full of people where this extraordinary activity goes on. You do recognise people that we stay with but it’s not essentially their story, their individual story. It’s a whole huge, huge thing.

 

Tana Bana is currently screening at the IFI

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: Tana Bana

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DIR/WRI:  Pat Murphy

In the Indian city of Banaras, located on the river Ganges, silk-weaving is as intricately woven into the community’s culture as the threads on their looms. However, globalisation has had the inevitable effect on the trade, with technology out-performing the hand-weavers at every turn- in quantity at least, if not quality. Pat Murphy’s documentary does its best to examine all aspects of the dying-out tradition, from the social to the economic influences, resulting in a luscious and informative film.

As one would imagine for a documentary about silk-weavers, viewers are treated to a visual feast of colours and textures – and that’s just the cinematography. Murphy succeeds in creating an interesting juxtaposition between the film’s dream-like aesthetic and its factual narrative. The lives of the weavers and their families are presented as is (for better or for worse) making it easier for the viewer to engage with the film’s subjects.

The art of silk-weaving is inherited by one generation from the predeceasing one, with weavers starting at the loom from a very young age. But with the demand for artisan silk wraps rapidly declining, the trade that once seemed so secure is no longer a legitimate career option for the upcoming generation. All areas of the weaving industry, from the wool dyers to the motif designers, are being hit hard but the pride they take in their work remains happily undiminished.

Questions of gender relations and education are also examined within the context of the weaving community. During one scene in the film, a teacher asks a classroom full of schoolgirls if they think a non-arranged, or ‘love’, marriage is something worth aspiring to. The response is unanimous: ‘love’ marriages lead to nothing but trouble, according to films and TV, so an arranged marriage is a girl’s safest bet. The fact that most of these girls have probably been promised in marriage from an early age anyway remains all but unsaid. The pressures being placed on these girls and their inevitable marriages is a subject worthy of its own documentary, but Murphy’s inclusion of this is handled smartly enough that it adds another dimension to the film rather than taking away from it. The world is moving forward at a rapid pace but the weaving community are not yet sure if they can to catch up to it. As threatened as their way of life is, silk-weavers remain wary of utilising their daughter’s talents to aid the family’s fortunes.

Tana Bana is more than just a treat for the senses. The film also acts as an important document to a vital part of Banaras’ culture that is beginning to disappear. While the future of the silk-weaving community remains uncertain, the skill and devotion the artists bring to their work is parallel to none. An intriguing insight into a specific people during a specific point in our history.

Ellen Murray

15A (See IFCO for details)

77 minutes
Tana Bana is released 9th October 2015

Tana Bana – Official Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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