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'I wanted to humanise this image we have of lads from disadvantaged communities'

The Irish film explores the impact of prison on a young teenager, and was inspired by real-life stories.

Source: WildCard Distribution/YouTube

WHAT IS IT like to be young and in prison?

What sort of impact would this have on your family – and on the rest of your life?

In Irish director Frank Berry’s new film Michael Inside, all of these questions are asked as he explores the story of the titular Michael, a young boy who ends up in prison and whose life is forced into a direction he hoped it wouldn’t go.

It’s a film about young offenders that’s not a comedy – a truth bomb about the reality of life for some people in Ireland.

Berry has long chronicled the types of issues that people can face when they live in disadvantaged areas, as explored in his films I Used To Live Here and Ballymun Lullaby. Rather than focus on fictions, he looks towards those whose stories aren’t always told in Ireland, bringing their lives to the big screen.

“It’s nice to finally get it out there,” says Berry when we meet at TheJournal.ie offices. It’s the day of the film’s premiere, and he’s feeling calm. (The film went on to get a 100% rating on film review site RottenTomatoes).

The inspiration for Michael Inside came to him while he was working on his last film, I Used To Live Here, which was about a young teen trying to cope with her mother’s death and struggling with suicidal ideation.

Source: WildCard Distribution/YouTube

Playing alongside the lead Jordanne Jones in that film was Dafhyd Flynn, who plays Michael in Berry’s latest work.

The people that Berry met and the stories that he heard while making his previous film, and the one before that, Ballymun Lullaby, showed him the wealth of material that was out there about the struggles facing young people in parts of Ireland.

Humanising people

“It wasn’t necessarily a desire to make a film about criminality, or even about prison,” says Berry of his motivation to create Michael Inside. “It was just about the lives of young people living in disadvantaged communities, where they become vulnerable to their lives being affected by other people’s activities.”

The TV show Love/Hate was out at the time, so Berry thought about focusing on someone who could have been an extra in the show:

“Somebody on the outskirts who gets affected by the ripple effects of criminal activity in their area.”

And the decisions that they make because of the culture and the environment they are in, they almost feel like they’re not decisions, they almost feel invisible in a way, where they do things because of the frequency of what they’re seeing around them.

Through telling Michael’s story, he wants to encourage people to have empathy for those whose stories they might assume to know. “One of the primary aims of the film is to humanise this image that we have of young lads from disadvantaged communities,” says Berry. “Dafhyd is from a disadvantaged community in Killinarden and he knows a lot of people who have experienced the story of Michael Inside and he speaks very passionately about it. So I felt that by casting Dafhyd I was casting someone who it could have happened to, in a way.”

“As Dafhyd said himself, everyone who goes to prison for drugs, that type of crime, they were all Michael at one stage.”

The pair met when Flynn was 12, and Berry says the young actor reminded him of himself, despite their different backgrounds.

With Michael Inside, Berry wanted to show how young people are not just criminalised, but if “you take a hard look at their lives you can see a lot of them have been victimised, actually”. He took the idea to the Irish Prison Service, who put him on to Pathways, the prison education service. Working with former prisoners in Pathways, he was able to construct a true-to-life story that reflects what other people have gone through.

MICHAEL INSIDE 001 Dafhyd Flynn

The Pathways participants told Berry about how they ended up in prison through decisions they made sometimes in an instant.

“Looking back there was a moment in their lives where they either started taking drugs or something happened, or they did something and they could pinpoint it as a moment where things changed for them,” says Berry.

“A former prisoner once described to me that he felt the trajectory of his life changed by a degree on a particular period in his life and then every day that went past he went further away from the guy he could have been. He said to me it’s almost impossible to go back, once you’re off.”

He hopes that the film will “encourage compassion and some empathy for the person who maybe you’re walking past on the street who’s addicted to heroin, that you were actually think about how they ended up that way and what were the circumstances”.

A character that’s real

Michael is a quiet teenager, but often his emotions are writ large on his face. ”I wanted to create a character that was true and representative and real,” says Berry.

Through Michael’s story, the film looks at how young people might be labelled – whether at home, in school or in the prison system – and how those labels impact on them.

When you’re the kid who is ‘suspended’ or ‘expelled’, how do you start to see yourself? How is your self-image altered?

“Even from when you first know that prison is likely or is a certainty, that’s when the mental turmoil begins and you start to question what is my role in life, what is my category, I’m the prisoner. So we looked at that, we looked at how Michael changes – one of the reasons why it’s called Michael Inside is because of how it changes inside him,” says Berry.

While the film does show some violence, Berry says it’s not interested in “glamourising violence, or having violence in any way a cinematic stylistic function”.

“What I am interested in is how it affects someone like Michael. Which is why the camera always turns away from it and moves into the space – we’re not interested,” he says.

Instead of focusing on the ‘gangsters on the hill’, the film looks at how the acts of these gangsters affect Michael. “So the idea was to stay with Michael for 96 minutes and to see that path and how he changes,” says Berry.

Intimidation

One of the film’s most chilling moments is when members of a gang call to Michael and his grandfather’s house to intimidate them. Berry perfectly captures the dread and fear as the men insouciantly threaten the pair in their living room.

MICHAEL INSIDE 003 Moe Dunford

“Family intimidation is now a huge problem in Ireland and it’s escalated over the last five years, so the stories that I heard, they are chilling in how entitled people feel to just knock on your door, come into your house, sit down,” says the director.

Sometimes they walk out the door with the television, you find yourself owing money, owing a lot of money very quickly. It’s a very real issue for people so I wanted to try and express that in as realistic a way as I could – I wasn’t interested in playing it for drama. So it doesn’t play it for drama, it plays really straightforward and it’s perhaps all the more chilling for that.

The naturalistic feel to the film – which only increases the sense of sadness you feel while watching – is because Michael’s story is not unusual, or unbelievable. It has all happened in parts to someone else.

Legal system

After watching Michael Inside, the viewer walks away with their views on prison and the legal system challenged. You ask yourself whether you agree with Michael’s sentence, and how it impacts on his life.

“Most of the people I met were in prison for drugs,” says Berry, when asked about this aspect. “I do feel it’s unfair on a lot of people. There are young people grown up now, middle-aged men who were once young people that I’ve met and the Irish law is that the law doesn’t forget, so they can never really move on.”

He says his feelings about disadvantaged communities haven’t changed. “Every time I do a project like this it’s only further confirmed that there are a lot of young people not engaged,” he says.

“I suppose the subject of all my work is to try and provide more for those lives, more engagement with young people, more services, more funding, more everything in that area.”

He doesn’t want to see wasted talent, “ young people sitting around, not engaged”.

“And there’s so much [talent] out there, so every time I make a film that’s reinforced more and more,” says Berry.

Challenging, moving, and a truly great Irish film, Michael Inside is a triumph. Berry has made a movie that will lead to many conversations around Ireland about our legal system and how it treats young offenders – and make people look with empathy upon those whose lives they know little about.

Michael Inside is in cinemas now. It has gone on expanded release – to see where it’s being shown, follow this link.

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