THE MAGDALENE SISTERS - Q&A with PETER MULLAN
As an actor Peter Mullan has earned plaudits for his performances in films like MY NAME IS JOE, TRAINSPOTTING, BRAVEHEART, MISS JULIE and THE CLAIM. He directed award winning short films, and episodic television before making his feature debut with ORPHANS. THE MAGDALENE SISTERS is his second feature as director.
The power of THE MAGDALENE SISTERS is that the audience get wrapped up in it so much that by the end they feel really angry at the injustice of it all.
It makes you furious to hear this doesn't it? It's a scandal what they got up to. Beyond scandal. The more stuff that comes out the more these Magdalene Asylums look like holiday camps compared to some of other places we've heard about. The only thing I can put them on a par with is like the way the KGB believed that the Soviet Union would be there before, so they acted with impunity. And so begins a certain sadism, and I suspect that was true in Ireland, because you think there must have been a fear that they would get caught and yet they did nothing to cover their tracks. They seemed to believe this never would end.
How did you first hear about it?
It came about from a documentary was shown on RTE in Ireland in 1993. They put an announcement of a helpline at the end, which was quite a novel thing at the time, and of course they had to keep the line open for four days because of all the people who rang in. That took RTE aback, and of course the papers picked up on it. So the Vatican sent over an envoy who met something like 6 or 700 of the 3000 who phoned in. He reported back to the Pope that he'd never come across a case of mass hysteria quite like it. Such was the impact of this 'very admirable but misinformed documentary', such was it's impact that people had created false memories of it. Imagine! This is 1993, and this guy declares 700 people are practically certifiable. They're all nuts, let's not listen to a word of it. That's only ten years ago, so what we're finding out now must mean it's rotten down to the foundation. I think now the anger in equal measure is as much about the fact that these people thought they would simply get away with it.
It must be especially satisfying to you that the film won an award in Italy, a Catholic country, isn't it?
We got the Golden Lion in Venice. But something some journalists said stunned me. They asked if I'd heard about the priests the night before. I hadn't, and they told me there were two priests outside the festival screening with video cameras, and as the audience were going in they were filming people, as if to say 'we know who you are'. They also said that even by watching the film these people were committing a sin. They gave people a chance to leave. This was 2002, and they honestly thought they had a right to do this, to film people and threaten them with their immortal soul.
For non-Catholic audiences what does that mean precisely?
That's the difficult thing to get across and I don't know if the film quite achieves it for a secular audience. If you're a Catholic these people had your soul. You couldn't go to your lawyer or your policeman - these are earthly powers. They have your soul. If a lawyer got you out, and these people said you were damned, then there'd be no point getting out because you'd only be free in this life. If you're brought up to believe there's an eternal afterlife that's all you live for. And that's a really tough thing to get across to a secular audience, without it sounding fantastical. The film attempts it, but I don't know if it succeeds in that regard. Can any film achieve that in 90 minutes?
Most of us will get our views of the church through films like yours and programmes like FATHER TED.
The thing I love so much about FATHER TED is how each new priest that arrives embodies yet another form of total lunacy. But a dog collar lets you away with it. Take the collar away from him and he's not going to have four or five youngsters in his company. But with a dog collar, it doesn't matter how barking mad you are, you get to say to five youngsters 'come on, let's go pot-holing'. And they do it. The bottom line is, give them a dog collar and you have someone in authority who may also be completely nuts.
Do you still describe yourself as a Catholic?
I would describe myself as a Catholic but I'm not practising, if that means going to Mass. My daughter goes to a Catholic school, my family are all Catholic, I guess most of my friends are Catholic although they would probably describe themselves as lapsed. But funnily enough doing this film I realised that I'm not lapsed. My soul was given to the Catholic Church when I was four years old, I left Catholic education when I was 17, so they had me for all those years. You don't lose that.
And yet some people might accuse the film of exaggerating the brutality for the sake of heightening the drama.
People connected to the church are saying that I don't understand that these were different times, and corporal punishment was quite common. But we're not talking about a smack on the ear, we're talking about institutionalised sadism which in any century, in any context, is inhumane and unforgivable. I remember that society as being much more violent that today's. Everybody got struck at some point, from school or parents - that happened. But the systematic deprivation, humiliation, rape and abuse of young women, sorry guys you don't get out of it using the old contextual argument.
Question & Answer Text Copyright of Momentum Pictures