Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Sunday 26 March 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Sky UK/Bernard Walsh
# irish cinema
Aisha: How this Irish film gives a look inside the Direct Provision system
We speak to the director, Frank Berry.

WHEN IT COMES to cinema, there can be a gap between what’s reality and what’s featured on screen. As viewers, we can trust in the fact that filmmakers know there’s space there to lean into fiction, even while trying to depict reality.

But we can also trust that for some directors, representing reality is the focus of their work. That in watching their films, we will get a look into another person’s life in a way that is sensitive and true.

One such person is Irish director Frank Berry, whose feature films take the viewer so deep into a world that they might feel they’ve experienced what they’ve seen on screen themselves. He draws so much from real life in his social realism that at times his work feels like documentary. It’s an approach that fosters empathy, which is even more meaningful when you note that Berry typically features on people who live on the margins of Irish society. 

In his latest film, Aisha, the Dubliner – who spent 10 years in community filmmaking and TV before making his first feature film – brings us into the world of the title character, Aisha Osagie. She’s a young Nigerian woman who has come to Ireland seeking asylum. The film takes its time revealing what happened to her, as we see Aisha enduring a long and bureaucratic process in her attempt to stay in Ireland.

When the film opens, she is staying at a Direct Provision centre in Dublin, and has been able to get a job in the local community. She is trying her best to keep her application moving, but the system is as slow-moving as treacle.

aisha Sky UK / Bernard Walsh Sky UK / Bernard Walsh / Bernard Walsh

The roots in the film lay in Berry’s previous film, the affecting Michael Inside, about a young teen who ends up in prison. The director realised while researching that film, in around 2014, that the Department of Justice oversees both the criminal justice system and the Direct Provision system. 

“There wasn’t a lot out there at the time about the reality of the experience of seeking protection in Ireland,” he tells The Journal. “So I was curious to know more, but I didn’t know whether it would lead to a film. I just wanted to know more.”

Later he met with Lucky Khambule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), an advocacy group, and found out more about the Direct Provision system. “When someone’s looking at you and telling you their experiences, you feel it very, very deeply,” says Berry.

And then the conviction [to make the film] comes from the conversations, and the bond and the friends that you make, and the collaboration. Early on, I get a very strong sense as to whether this will be a film, and whether it’s a film that I could make and should make.

He felt that telling the story of Direct Provision and the reality of it for asylum seekers was a film he did need to make.

Berry’s approach to Aisha was to meet with and speak to the people directly affected by Direct Provision. It was about ensuring his film only showed the truth of what they experienced. “You make thousands of decisions when you’re making a film, and they’re motivated pretty much by getting close to the truth and to reality. And so then the aim is to put something on the screen that feels close to reality and feels real,” says Berry.

“Because if we didn’t do that it would undermine our aims. If the film was criticised as being not true or not realistic, then nobody will talk about the issue of Direct Provision and no one will talk about Aisha and the characters, because they’ll just write it off.

So, yeah, I put a lot of pressure on myself and try to make the film as authentically as I can.

aisha Sky UK Sky UK

Lived experience

Berry says he tries not to make anything up in his films. He describes them as a ‘tapestry of lived experience’. “So I try and listen a lot. And then you’re affected by what people tell you, when someone tells you something,” he says.

“I don’t ask questions, either. Because it’s really about getting to know somebody. And then whenever a person feels comfortable sharing, they’ll share with you if they know you’re making the film.”

As he does his research and meets more people, the narrative of the film starts to come into focus – usually “because people very often who don’t know each other say the same things”.  The more he met people, the more he was hearing similar stories about the fear of deportation, the experience of being in a Direct Provision centre, and what it feels like to have your identity replaced with the words asylum seeker.

It was when Berry met a group of Nigerian women in Waterford and spent time with them that character of Aisha started to form. “I do all this research over time, and the story arc appears,” he says. But the approach is collaborative – right up to the edit suite.

Stars and the script

Sky Cinema / YouTube

The film has two big stars in it – Letitia Wright (Small Axe, Black Panther) as Aisha, and Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country, The Crown) as Conor Healy, a new security guard she meets at the first Direct Provision accommodation.

Wright, who plays Aisha with grace and tenacity, responded “very, very, very powerfully to the script”, says Berry. “There was nuance in her performance. So what I did was I got out of the way a little bit, and what I saw was she brought so much life into Aisha, and she responded to every scene. And to be honest with you, from my perspective, she brought a lot of what I could never write.”

His directing style is to not be too impositional; instead, he likes to treat the work as a collaboration, where the performance comes from within. 

“A lot of what I what I do in terms of directing non-professionals, as well as professional actors, is we talk about the film in a very real way early on: about my journey, researching the film, about the lived experience, and the aims of the film.

We talk about life, we get to know each other, we bond early on, and there’s a really strong sense of connection between me and the cast, even the supporting cast, the special extras, everybody.

This helps everyone feel comfortable in their roles, and also provides a shared conviction. It means that the actors don’t have to turn to him for permission – they can express themselves. 

“We called it a live space, the set – it’s possible to change the dialogue, it’s possible to move around, to change if you feel comfortable. And I think a lot of authenticity comes from that approach a lot of a lot of naturalism,” says Berry.

Both O’Connor and Wright have played roles within the social realism space on screen before. ”They’re very socially conscious and very connected to the issues of this film,” says Berry. During his first conversations with O’Connor, the pair talked about Michael Inside and the men Berry had met while making it, former prisoners trying to put themselves on positive paths. 

“The Conor character organically just found its way into the script because the origin of the film came from Michael Inside,” says Berry. There are obvious parallels between Conor, a former prisoner, and Aisha – both are or have been part of a system, and both can be subject to judgement and stigma. Yet the film shows how they both connect through a shared humanity. 

O’Connor’s Dublin accent is impressive. “He came over to Dublin early and he walked the streets – it was during lockdown – and spoke to people and then slowly, we just saw him dissolve into a Dublin character. It was really extraordinary, you know. It’s more than just the accent, he really studies people,” says Berry.


When Aisha was first announced online, the film immediately attracted some criticism and questions about white saviourism on Twitter. This was despite the fact it hadn’t been released, and all people had was a basic plotline, though it was understandable that people would be concerned over how the life of an asylum seeker would be depicted on screen. How did Berry find that period?

“I think people who didn’t know my work had the wrong idea,” he says. “And I always knew that all I had to do was make the film, and people would see the film, and would understand who I am as a filmmaker. It was surprising at the time, but I always felt that I just have to make the film and people will see what the aims of it are.”

He says that so far Aisha has received “a really good response from audiences”, and he hopes that in turn this will create conversation about Direct Provision, its impact on people, and how it functions.

The government has pledged to end Direct Provision by 2024, replacing it with a new system that will include not-for-profit accommodation (currently the housing is supplied by private owners).

“Where that transition is, I don’t know. It’s been complicated, obviously, by the Ukrainian crisis, and it involves the housing crisis, and it’s a bigger problem perhaps for just one department to solve in government,” acknowledges Berry. But he is hopeful that there will be imminent change, and that a film like Aisha can help play a role in encouraging discussion about what sort of system we want in Ireland.

“If this film can join that chorus and create a space for discussion, just to keep the conversation [going], that will be wonderful,” he says. Above all, what Aisha does is capture a moment as it is occurring, which is a powerful record for the future.

“I think these films very often are made in retrospect, after the fact. I’m delighted to have made this film now, and not to be making it in 10 or 20 years time,” says Berry. “Because hopefully it’ll have some impact.”

Aisha is available to watch on Sky Cinema.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment

    Leave a commentcancel