We are delighted to host Irish filmmaker and journalist Sinead O’Shea along with her film Pray For Our Sinners. The documentary mixes personal storytelling with political exposé, where O’Shea returns to her small hometown to confront historical abuse and neglect in the Catholic Church. More specifically, she delves into the harm caused to women and children in “mother and baby” homes (where unwed mothers were sent to deliver their newborns) and the corresponding resistance against it.
The documentary covers a fairly intense subject, was creating it an emotional process for you given how close it is to your home and history? In that same vein, was being able to tell this story in some ways cathartic for you?
Yes, it’s quite a mixed experience to make something that’s literally so close to home and this film incorporates a lot of my personal history also. A part of me felt quite conflicted because I didn’t want to seem disloyal to my hometown. I recognize the dysfunction but there was a lot of good within the place too, and, as I grow older, I increasingly see the flaws in other supposedly more “enlightened” places.
As I say in the film, it just wasn’t acceptable to talk about your feelings or to complain. It really was considered to be very leftfield and indulgent so I had to fight that instinct whenever I was presenting anything in the film from my perspective.
My piece within the film is very small compared to Mary, Betty, Ethna, and Norman but it was cathartic for me to express some of that. I’ve never spoken so personally before.
You have made quite a few journalistic films, was the process for this one different or similar? In what ways?
Well, it was different because the film was so much more personal and spoke to experiences that I had never articulated before.
I’ve worked in some very dangerous places all over the world such as Eritrea or Iran and done a lot of undercover work, but to be honest, this was probably the most daunting film I’ve made.
It is tough to reveal certain things about yourself. It was tough also to ask difficult questions of people you’ve known all your life which I had to do when I was trying to find out more about Fr. Farrell – a central character in the film. These people were speaking to me because they had known me since childhood and I didn’t want to betray them.
I also didn’t want to set up my hometown as some kind of simplistic backwater when the reality is that Catholic belief can be a very sophisticated process that involves a lot of thinking and learning.
There were other perhaps more surprising differences. For various reasons, it was the most straightforward shooting experience I’ve had in a long time. We only could afford a cameraperson for a few days but somehow everyone made themselves available at the right time. I’ve sometimes spent months and years trying to track other subjects down – this happened in my first film, A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot. I lost my central characters for two whole years!
What challenges did you face in making this documentary?
The biggest challenge probably was the budget. The film was entirely financed by Screen Ireland as part of their microbudget scheme for about $125k and it’s not easy to shoot and edit a feature for that kind of money. Some crew dropped out because you can have to schedule in a certain way on that budget level. You end up doing a lot yourself and not being paid. That can feel very lonely. And the doubts grow! I often wondered if I was deluding myself about its potential as a film at all.
Then, as said, there were the challenges that came from making something that was personal and involved people I knew but that is the strength of the film too.
How did those who are personally connected to this story and its complex and emotional history react to the documentary, especially those in your hometown?
Actually, nobody in my hometown or indeed in Ireland has seen it yet! Mary saw close to a final cut and loved it which was a relief but I’m not sure how anybody else is going to react especially people from Navan. I get a bit nervous when I think about it. My hope is that they will watch the film through. Ultimately it’s quite a nuanced piece. I myself believe that there was much good within our community alongside the problems and that none of it was black or white.
Are there any filmmakers or films who have influenced your personal path and filmmaking style?
Well, there are lots of filmmakers I like but I’m not sure they’d be flattered by comparisons. I love the work of Pawel Pawlikowski, especially his documentaries and dramas like My Summer of Love and Ida but I imagine we’re quite different. I like the documentarian Sean McAllister a lot also, I loved his film, A Syrian Love Story and I love his attitude. He makes everything seem possible. I think everything Celine Schiama does is nearly perfect. I like the humour of Leonor Serraille.
Lastly, what was your favorite moment in shooting or creating this film?
I really enjoyed the occasional moments of lightness that Mary or Ethna provided. I could listen to Ethna talking to her cows all day so that’s why we’ve included plenty of that in the film. Mary is funny too, in a different way. She’s just constantly nonchalant about the challenges she overcame and plays things down so much that it’s actually kind of hilarious.
You can see Pray For Our Sinners at the festival this year, where it is competing in our Documentary Competition. Click here for further information, tickets, and screening times.