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Housing crisis on film: 'What if a woman could rebuild herself - and her own house with her own hands?'

We speak to the film Herself’s director, Phyllida Lloyd about how it was inspired by the Irish housing crisis.

WHAT IF HAVING a home of your own was something you had control over, regardless of what you earn or what your marital status is? And what if the power of community could be harnessed to make this happen? That’s the premise of the film Herself, which comes to the big screen as a national discussion continues to rage over housing in Ireland.

The film, written by actor Clare Dunne and Malcolm Campbell, is directed by Phyllida Lloyd (theatre director and director of films Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady), who spoke to The Journal about Herself’s roots in real life, and how the topic “possessed” Dunne so much that she had to make a film about it.

Dunne stars in the film as Sandra, a mother of two young girls (played by Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara) who leaves an abusive relationship with Gary (a menacing Ian Lloyd Anderson) and finds herself homeless and living in hotels, trying to keep her life together. The film has many parallels to Rosie, the Sarah Greene-starring film written by Roddy Doyle, which also was produced by Element Pictures and starred child actor Molly McCann.

As the film opens, we see the struggles – emotional, physical and structural – facing the young mother. Sandra dreams of taking control over her own life, of finding a home and place of safety for her and her daughters, but at every turn she feels like she’s being thwarted. 

The film is released at a pivotal moment, just a short while after the launch of the Fianna Fail – Fine Gael government’s new Housing For All plan, which itself comes on the heels of a decade of unease over Ireland’s post-Celtic Tiger housing policy. The solution that Sandra comes up with in Herself is not something that is accessible to many right now, so many viewers will leave the screening musing over the potential of putting power back into people’s own hands and thinking outside the box about housing in Ireland.

‘She was possessed with the injustice’

British-based Lloyd and Dunne met while working on a project involving women in prison in the UK and Ireland. They found themselves “preoccupied” with the number of women who ended up in the criminal justice system due to a background of domestic abuse. 

Around the same time, Lloyd said, a friend of Dunne’s left an abusive relationship and found herself homeless. Dunne “was just possessed with the injustice and began to think – what if this woman could actually rebuild herself, her own house with her own hands?” said Lloyd.

She took inspiration, too, from the work of Irish architect Dominic Stevens, who made a self-built house that cost just €25k (this specifically features in the film). She started to work these ideas into a script, and gave it to Lloyd to read.

Lloyd was immediately impressed. “It had such an amazing sense of the proportions of film, in a way,” said Lloyd. “Between words and silence, and action and dialogue, and stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily know instinctively if you hadn’t worked in film.” 

Lloyd presumed Herself would be directed by an Irish director, but began to get more drawn in. She persuaded Dunne to drop the sister character that Dunne was planning on playing, and become Sandra herself. Then Lloyd came on board fully to direct.

‘It seems like a universal story’

There was no discussion of basing the film outside of Ireland. Lloyd wanted it to “feel completely authentic to the city and the country”. 

“But at the same time, to me it seems like a universal story, the same thing was happening in London and New York, there were people living in hotels, a lack of social housing, very high rents, an inflated housing market, all of these things,” she said. “So maybe my being an outsider was in some way helpful in that I was determined, with the help of both Clare, the producers, Malcolm who helped us with the screenplay, and the actors that it would feel completely Irish.

But on the other hand, I didn’t see any reason why somebody in Brazil or China would not understand it, I wanted it to have that, that universal resonance.

A year before filming, Lloyd and Dunne went to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales to learn how to build a timber-framed house, and Lloyd said they brought some of this spirit to the making of the film. 

Interestingly, Lloyd did face some questions from people over the ‘lack’ of a star in the film – though it stars Dunne, a familiar face on theatre stages, alongside Harriet Walter (Atonement, Sense and Sensibility) and Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones).

“I was told in my early time when I got to Dublin, that we would struggle to make a film. That a film without stars can struggle to make it outside the country,” said Lloyd. “And there was a consideration about you know, who else should be in this film. But I was determined that we would make it with the best ensemble we had, that ultimately, if we got it right, it would travel.” With producers Element and Sharon Horgan on board, there was a strong internationally respected team behind the film which no doubt stood to it. 

‘This is my story’

The power of Herself’s universal appeal really made itself known during early screenings, when audience members connected to the story of Sandra and her children. “We did a screening and quite a few people stood up in the audience at the end, and said ‘this is my story – I was one of those children’. I mean, not that they’ve built their own houses but ‘I was one of those children, my mother picked us up and ran’, and people responded so emotionally to it. That was so moving,” said Lloyd. 

The film has a number of intense scenes of domestic violence, and other difficult moments, such as when the audience realises the small children and their mother have a code so they can alert people if she’s being attacked.

One scene in particular stands out for its viscerality. Though the focus stays on Sandra, the victim, the actions of the perpetrator are incredibly hard to watch. Was it difficult to decide how much of this to leave in or take out? 

“We shot a brutal scene for the top of the film. And then in the journey of the edit… I think that the idea of being always to stay very close to Sandra, that ultimately we were dealing with post traumatic stress, where a certain amount of what had happened was blocked out. It’s obviously something that is repressed in Sandra’s memory that doesn’t come out until, in some ways, she’s beginning to process what she’s gone through and what’s behind her,” said Lloyd.

“So what we decided to do was, was sort of eke [the violence] out – it wasn’t about sort of bashing the audience over the head with the violence, I think they understood what was behind it, that it was about how her memory was working, what was trying to push through and emerge. And we based that on our understanding of PTSD.” 

The actual shooting of this brutal scene “was extraordinarily calm, organised and miraculous in a way”, said Lloyd. Ian Lloyd Anderson “is one of the nicest, gentlest men in Christendom and he and Clare are good friends, there’s a lot of trust between them”. The fight was choreographed, and with the fight director they worked “quite calmly, gently”. 

“It’s a dance, because you’re not actually hitting each other, and you have got a camera in the room so it’s a very carefully choreographed dance,” said Lloyd. Chief among her concerns was how the young child actors would cope with it, but she found that they had “such old heads on young children, there was nothing that really seemed to throw them – to them it was ‘let’s pretend’”, because they (and their parents) had prepared for the scenes.

The actors were “remarkable” said Lloyd, and the atmosphere on set was very familial. 

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Trying to balance lightness and darkness was key for Lloyd overall with the film. “The theme was the relationship between isolation, and the isolation that someone who is in an abusive relationship or is trying to bring up two children in a hotel room feels; the relationship between that and community.

“And so, it was about just trying to really pay attention to the sort of the light that was there, both in the isolated loneliness of Sandra, and stay very close to Clare and not letting anything get between Clare and the camera.

And then to allow this camaraderie, exuberance that just sort of emerged on the set with the group; to somehow try and build a community that did have that spirit of meitheal.

Diversity on screen

The surrounding cast is racially diverse, something which was important to Lloyd and Dunne as they wanted to make sure they reflected how Dublin is a multicultural city. 

“We met a lot of people in auditions, and somebody who perhaps in the screenplay originally was Spanish ended up being Brazilian, and someone who was originally Polish ended up being Russian. We were just trying to not box ourselves in by going ‘this has to [be this way]‘, but actually going: well, who might step forward and join this group [of friends helping Sandra]? So it was really about the city we saw in front of us, the world we saw in front of us, and we wanted to reflect that.”

Diversity is hugely important to Lloyd, who has spoken out about the need for it on and off stage in the theatre world. In 2018, she used an acceptance speech at an awards ceremony to call on Britain’s Arts Council to refuse funding for theatre companies unless they committed to gender equality. She has directed a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare plays, and with the Abba musical Mamma Mia! (the precursor to the film) she also placed women’s stories to the fore, though in a drastically different theatrical form. Mamma Mia! went on to become one of the most successful British films ever. 

She says that things have changed a bit with regard to diversity and theatre and film.

“Women are getting more of a slice of the cake. Whether they are across the board, you know – certainly, there aren’t enough women. There aren’t enough female directors in film.

“There aren’t enough female directors in the commercial stage in London.

“There aren’t enough female stories… there’s a way to go, but things are slowly changing.”

Herself is in cinemas now.

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