Mothers tend to make things from nothing. Whether it’s a story, a meal, a home – or life itself. This magical power of mothers is explored in Element Pictures’ award-winning production, HERSELF. DAISY HICKEY SITs DOWN WITH STAR AND SCRIPTWRITER, CLARE DUNNE…
HERSELF, a critically-acclaimed Irish drama about an abused woman driven to radical DIY by a system that has failed her, was written by actress and Dublin native Clare Dunne, who plays the role of its protagonist, Sandra. The film – winner of Best Script at the Irish Film and Television Awards, amongst its five other nominations – is both a universal story of struggle for suitable, safe housing and protection for women, and an entirely Irish tale, referencing old Irish folklore, and culture. The plot could be the material of Irish urban legend, something you might hear transmitted, in piecemeal fashion, neighbour to neighbour, at the local pub. ‘Did you hear about your one from Dublin who went and built her own house? Sure, she’d no choice. Fair play to her.’
Watching Sandra commit to a journey of building her own home in HERSELF is an unsettling, compelling and uplifting experience all at once. Usually Hollywood depictions of this kind of struggle denote a distance, but there is something very tangible about Sandra’s state, and her inventiveness in the face of crisis. I asked Dunne how she managed to create something so authentic, and she tells me she provided just core lines for the actors, ensured they knew the character well, and let them expand upon that. “Actors can come up with the best lines of a movie,” she explains. “I didn’t really want my script to be a spine for the actors to work for. I didn’t want them to feel limited.”
Dunne’s award-winning script was, in its own way, painstakingly built. Dunne was driven to write the story after a friend of hers struggled for housing as a single mother in Ireland. She then assembled the rest of HERSELF after many years of research, including interviews with social workers, family lawyers, economists, and child psychologists. She read up on how much it would cost a person to construct their own home, and the challenges they might face in obtaining permission. She read Rural by Dominic Stevens, which inspired her, and gave her some insight to how land was used by the Irish before colonisation. But for some reason, for all Dunne’s homework, the film feels like a documentary.
“HERSELF is not based on a true story. It was sort of inspired by a friend’s dilemma, but more so her determined character. I think a lot of mothers are like this, especially single parents. They’ve got a lot of grit and determination. They don’t get a lot of sleep, or rest. And they just get over things. They get on with it. And I love that. And I just thought, like, I want to show this woman that’s stuck in a domestic scenario and dealing with violence, but without presenting her as a victim. It’s something that has happened to her, but doesn’t define her.”
Universal and local
The dual crises prevalent in HERSELF – the housing crisis and domestic violence – are universal struggles, and the film seemed to strike chords internationally before shooting had even wrapped. “During the shoot, I got a few shocks, because before we had even finished shooting, distribution sold rights based on the script alone. And this was in places like China, countries in Africa, Australia… I realised that HERSELF was hitting on two worldwide issues – domestic violence and housing. I think that’s why. Those are crises everywhere.”
She hesitates. “But when I was writing it, my main thing was trying to translate the problem of being an adult in Ireland. So you’re probably only like, 23. I’m in my 30s.” (She is kind to say this – I am 27. I decide not to correct her – after all, she’s making an important point.)
“What I mean is, for our generation, in Dublin, you know, it’s just been tough in the last seven to ten years just in terms of renting and housing and how to live when you’re trying to form who the f*** you are, what you want to do with your life, and your career, and you end up in survival mode because it’s so hard…” (“To be an adult?” I offer, understanding this a little too well.)
“Exactly. It’s so hard to just become an adult! This was my big concern. I was like, I just want to sound authentic to my own generation. I’m like my people in Dublin. I didn’t think about the wider world when I was writing it.”
Power, St Brigid and ‘meitheal’
Ireland’s patron saint of spring, St Brigid, could also be seen as the patron saint of creating something from nothing. In the story of St Brigid, she tricked the King of Leinster into giving her more land than he thought she could ask for, using her magic cloak. In HERSELF, Sandra’s daughter tells her about St Brigid and her mischief, which only leads to inspiration on Sandra’s part. I asked Dunne how this idea came to her. “I remember one night, I had this urge for the child to tell the mother a story, to reverse the roles. And in a way, the St Brigid story is a superhero story, a story about power, for women.”
During the shooting of the film, a real house was constructed, by Dunne, the crew, the cast, and production. The film itself references ‘meitheal’, an Irish term that describes how neighbours would come together to assist in the saving of crops or other tasks. It transcends ‘community’ – it is about neighbours accomplishing a goal as a group for the benefit of one neighbour, simply because – they’re neighbours.
One such helpful ‘neighbour’ in the film is Peggy, Sandra’s employer, played by Harriet Walter. A retired doctor, and cranky widow, Peggy is well-off with a beautiful house, but suffers from a hip injury and never-ending grief for her late daughter. “I wanted to show, well, an older woman who is still changing in her life. This woman worked with Doctors Without Borders, had a really independent spirit – and now she’s disempowered, with a hip injury.” In helping Sandra, through lending her land, Peggy learns to accept help. “I feel like actually Sandra and Peggy are very similar people just in different guises and ages and in different financial situations. They’re both very, very steely, determined people, trying to be good mothers. And it’s an exchange between them. Harriet [Walter] was like, I love that she’s given her a loan. She’s not given her a hand out.”
HERSELF is not just a compelling, well-acted production, but an educational vehicle. It creates opportunity for myriad discussions on Irishness, community, land use, domestic violence, protection of victims, family law, and parenthood, all while drawing the viewer in. And while all of this might have possibly been achieved by big-budget Hollywood productions, the talented Dunne managed to do it herself.
Watch HERSELF in cinemas from Friday 10 September.
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