It’s been said that you should look at Irish cinema not if you want to learn about Ireland (or life in general for that matter)—but if you want to learn about genre; what works and what, more often than not, doesn’t work in the adoption and adaptation of genre conventions. Unfortunately, most Irish films have lived up to this premise all too well. The result: ordinary, everyday life has been seriously neglected on our screens.

There have been some exceptions to this—Adam & Paul being a strong recent example. Yet even that still filtered its true-to-life story through a comic Laurel-and-Hardy-style set-up. Pavee Lackeen, the debut feature by photographer Perry Ogden, refreshingly bucks the trend completely. Shot on digital video, with a mostly non-professional cast, no script in the traditional sense, and ample doses of improvisation, Ogden has created a film out of the small moments of everyday life without the safety net of a goal-oriented plot or genre blueprint to fall back on.

This is not to suggest Pavee is some unadulterated slice of real life—like any other fiction film (or documentary), it’s a shaped and manipulated piece of work. But the film’s unconventional form opens up possibilities in dealing with its subject matter that a conventional narrative couldn’t allow. Through a series of loosely and elliptically related episodes, the film tells the story of ten year old Traveller girl Winnie (Winnie Maughan) and her family—played by her real life mother, brothers and sisters—as they live in caravans by the side of the road in an industrialised area of Dublin. We see Winnie get suspended from school for fighting, and many of her subsequent wanderings around the city as she fills her school-free days. We see her and her sister, Rose, making themselves up for a night out that turns out to involve no more than buying a bag of chips. We watch some of their daily rituals, such as fetching water for the kettle from their only source of water, an outdoor tap across the road.

It’s probably clear from these descriptions that even to say that Pavee Lackeen “tells the story” is somewhat misleading, since there is no story in the traditional sense. In fact, the form of the film consistently discourages the viewer from understanding it in a straightforward narrative way. As well as the lack of plot, exposition is extremely minimal. We’re often unsure of who characters are and what their history is. We’re thrown into scenes halfway through, left to fill in the gaps ourselves. Without a plotline or backstory to cling onto, the viewer is forced to deal solely with the film’s actions, moment by moment. Film becomes about what happens now, not what happens next.
Interestingly, it’s the most narrative elements that are the weakest. The two plot-like threads running through the film revolve around Winnie’s suspension, and the attempts of the city council to evict her family from the land they’re living on. Interspersed among the more relaxed moments of childhood and family life, these scenes—involving interactions with social workers, council representatives, police—seem rather stilted and unnatural in comparison, more formal both in how they’re shot and how they’re acted.

But perhaps that’s the point—and it is striking that the only significant plot points in the film are the result of state intervention. It’s also interesting to note that the state representatives are the weakest actors in the film, with the children (especially the remarkable and captivating Winnie) being the most accomplished. While the statespeople play fixed roles of formality and politeness, the children just naturally react to everything, without any pretension. This shows up brilliantly when a visit by two social workers is interrupted by an impromptu singing competition between Winnie and her sisters. The narrative train of conversation about education and school uniforms is derailed while the girls sing their songs.

The attention and affection that is given to small, “unimportant” moments like these is the film’s greatest asset. It’s also what saves it from becoming a preachy social issue film. Dealing with a marginalised and disadvantaged community, it would have been easy to make a polemical, “political” movie, lamenting the Travellers’ situation and condemning those responsible. But that would just be to dehumanise the film’s subjects, reducing them to being a social problem as much as government policy does. And while there is certainly an emphasis on the poor conditions the Maughan family are living in (sometimes humourously, as when Winnie and her sister steal clothes from a 3rd world charity bank), it’s the film’s patient and observational approach that prevents it from turning into a bad Ken Loach film. (Although one does wonder how different the film might have been had a Traveller made the film rather than an outsider.)  Even a sequence in which Winnie interacts with a series of non-national shopowners—potentially a somewhat heavy-handed way of drawing comparisons between the Travellers’ situation and that of other minorities—is saved by Winnie, who plays these scenes with a natural curiousity that is completely unconcerned with political points.

One could compare Winnie’s inquisitiveness in these scenes, to the way director Ogden has approached this film in the whole—no doubt due to his background as a photographer—with an emphasis above all not on ideas or politics or social problems, but on looking: close, compassionate attention to what is in front of you.

represents a kind of filmmaking that, it seems to me, has been strikingly absent from the Irish film world in recent years. Of course, it’s not a kind of filmmaking that has been absent internationally—and Pavee bears the clear mark of influences from the likes of Harmony Korine, the Dardenne brothers, and Alan Clarke (in particulary his brilliant but rarely seen Christine). But there’s something more going on here—something that can’t be reduced to those influences, and something that can’t be summed up in a review.

Besides, even if the film was completely derivative, there’s still lots to learn from here for Irish filmmakers: the virtues of using non-actors; the value of a more documentary approach (there are scenes in Pavee where it’s impossible to tell whether the actors are performing or have just been caught unaware)—and finally, a reminder that screenwriting structure is a tool, not a rule, and there is no by-the-numbers formula for interesting, exciting cinema.


This article was originally published in Film Ireland 107.


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