An Interview with Aisling Walsh

in 38th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Martina Zemlicka

The name Aisling Walsh many will soon recognize as a unique storyteller with a powerful voice and vision. The director of Song for a Raggy Boy has an incredible sensitivity and talent for showing details that gives her audience exactly what we all hope for when seeing a film – we live the experience. When watching this film you realize how important it is to understand what really happened in the name of the catholic church centuries ago. This shocking drama is set in the 1930s and drawn from real events at an Irish Reformatory School. Song for a Raggy Boy is the story of one man’s courage to stand up and fight against the tough fascist regime and the sadistic headmaster who reigns over his helpless pupils with unlimited power.

MZ: Your movie is a about history and power of the catholic church and therefore about the male gender, just one female actress appears briefly in an extra role.

AW: A lot of work I have done has been with men – male cast. It is interesting. Iain Glenn (who plays Brother John) is an actor I have worked with quite a few times and he sort of thinks, somehow I understand men well. I write better for men than for women. I am impressed by very strong women.

MZ: Like Frida? I can see you are wearing her picture on your medaillon.

AW: (Smiling.) Yeah – I went to Art school before I started to do films. I saw her paintings and kept saying to people “this in an incredible painter”. But she has the same thing going on, she was a very strong woman and I think painting, writing and filmmaking, a lot of areas within the arts – you have to be strong if you want to succed.

MZ: Seeing you I can tell, on one hand you are very humble, but on the other I can see the strength in you, especially in your eyes.

AW: Yeah, that’s what people say. You have to keep going, you know. It took six years to make this film. But it would have been a different film being made already six years ago.

MZ: How did you find the story?

AW: The book has been given to me by one of the producers. It has been given to him by somebody else and – I was helping him on another project he was working on… He asked me, “do you think this would make a good film?” He wanted me to write and direct it. And then we moved on. The book is a novel, very short. So we expanded out from the book, I did quite a bit of investigations over the years and wrote the frist sort of draft and over the years met people and it developed to what you can see now.

MZ: What is the movie about for you?

AW: I think it is about freedom of sort of spirit really. Spirit that he kind of instills in these kids. Sure, the whole story has to do a lot with history and what went on, but I think it is more about what my father always used to say: “stand up and fight for what you believe in!” Being Irish it is very much part of my history as a child growing up. And what is interesting is, I have lived in England for the past 20 years, so I looked at it from a different perspective, a little bit more distant.

MZ: Did you have a chance to meet one of these children being grown-ups today, who had to go through the experience of this brutal regime?

AW: I have a very good friend who I met when I was sixteen. He spent most of his childhood in a school like that. The scene where the brothers are beaten up outside, this is not in the book and there was a documentay made in Ireland four years ago. There were two men interviewed who were just so incredible, so I sort of used that as an inspiration. Then I visited one of these schools – I mean it is official closed down, but I got the building to visit, which has been basically untouched since then. Fortunately, there are no schools like that in function anymore.

MZ: What do you personally think about the fact, that this all happened under the cover of the bible?

AW: Terrible! In Southern Ireland the catholic church together with the state, they were very, very powerful. They are hundreds of those kids who died. They didn’t even have to explain the deaths of the kids to the parents. Some survived though but had a really difficult life, mostly went down the road.

MZ: Thinking about your scenes of violence – the raping scene or the scene where the headmaster punishes the two brothers or kills the kid on Christmas Day with the foam building up in front of his mouth. Did you use a special technic of filmmaking so that they came out so strongly?

AW: People say it is very difficult to watch and find it extremely violent. A lot work in these scenes is done with sound and visually what you think you are seeing. I was developing a number of projects in the last couple of years, created my feature called Joyriders in 1989, some others fell apart. So I started to work for television. I learned the most working on TV series and the combination of it is what you see in Song for a Raggy Boy. And I think I am quite lucky to have a good instinct. But I don’t know how that happens that you know how to see things.

MZ: What was the most dificult scene to shoot for you?

AW: Probably, where the two brothers got beaten. It was a very cold day, raining. We got at a point in the scene, where the light started to go and the kids were cold and one of them already really upset. We needed to shoot another two shots, but I said no, we have to stop and pick it up the next day. If you work with an actor like Iain Glen, you just know what you get, we work incredibly well together. He has the ability to look very real.

MZ: Did you need somebody for the kids who would support them psychologically throughout the shoot?

AW: No, I had a very good shooter who went through the scenes with them every day. They had read the script. They knew the story of what had happened.

MZ: Has there ever been a scene which would scare them or make them feel uncomfortable?

AW: This were kids between 11 and 14. They understood very well the process of shooting. But they would get a little bit scared when the headmaster was beating the two boys. When you hear the voice screaming and shouting, especially when you don’t see anymore what’s going on, because the kids in rows had to turn their back to the scenario at some point – the sound is pretty scary! They just found the brother very frightning to watch.

MZ: When I think about the raping scene, it seems so real…

AW: That was a very simple scene to film. People think that was quite difficult. I explained to the 14 year old Chris, the boy, what it is about… and I mean he had his trousers on. I think the harder scene for him to do and also for me to shoot was him telling the priest in the confession box. When I met him, and I met him a few times, and I knew he was right for that part, I rung his mother and said that I want him to play this part but that I need her to explain him the scene before he would read it to me. He knew about it anyway, so he was fine. Actually, the hardest thing to do for him as a child was to stand in the shower with his clothes off… Really, the harder scenes to shoot in this film are the ones where you see fifty kids, because they are all noisy and you are trying to keep them quiet and so on.