Look back with candour
Pioneering Irish feminist film-maker Pat Murphy is being feted with an IFI retrospective. She talks to TARA BRADYabout how the radical journey continues – but in a new direction
FILM-MAKER Pat Murphy emerged at a peculiar moment in the odd, higgledy-piggledy history of Irish film. A graduate of the Ulster College of Art and Design, Murphy studied under noted feminist theorists such as Laura Mulvey to emerge with an MA in Film and Television from London’s Royal College of Art.
The pioneering Murphy is, accordingly, often written up as a disciple of the old-school reduction, which holds that the cinematic apparatus of classical Hollywood invariably objectifies the female.
It’s a neat theory but it’s far too small a pigeonhole for Murphy’s post-Marxist, post-Republican, post-Irish, post-Joyce oeuvre.
“Laura Mulvey was a huge presence when I was at college,” nods the director. “Like most film-makers my age, I had read her essay on visual pleasure and narrative cinema and, as with most film-makers my age, it became a kind of touchstone. She’s a phenomenal figure, but if I had really been her disciple, I would have made very different kinds of films to the ones I did make.”
Sure enough, in the late 1970s, Murphy found even more radical modes of thinking across the Atlantic when she became the first European to spend a scholarship year at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Her plan was to learn a trade and train as a cinematographer. New York, however, sent her off down a road less travelled. What’s this? A lady director?
“In New York, I started to work with other film-makers that got me fired up,” recalls Murphy. “Before that, I had never connected movies as being something I could do. In England at the time, the theory was radical, but coming from Ireland it felt a little bit repressed and stuffy.
Repressed and stuffy would never have suited Murphy. Energetic and possessed with delightfully demonstrative fingers, today we catch up with the film-maker behind Maeve, Anne Devlin and Nora in the Irish Film Institute, the site of an upcoming Murphy retrospective and one-time home to a poster for Anne Devlin – longtime punters will surely remember the quad that decorated the establishment when it was still known as the Irish Film Centre.
“When the archive called me about a retrospective, I wondered if three feature films was enough to justify one,” she smiles. “But I do get quite a lot of emails from people trying to track them down. The only place to see them is in the archive in here. It’s my own fault really. People now are more clued in to the life of their films after the cinema. I never have been. I was just about making them. I made films in an impermanent way. You make them. You leave them. I realise now that I have to do better housekeeping.”
Murphy cringes slightly. “And I really don’t have the outgoing, promotional personality that helps when youre a director. It’s amazing that I managed those three films.”
In 1980, Murphy, lately returned from her New York sabbatical, received funding from the British Film Institute for Maeve. A Godardian thriller set against the Ulster conflict, it was Irelands first bona-fide feminist film, a landmark that has kept thesis students coming to her doorstep ever since.
“It has tailed off a bit in recent years,” she says. “But I did used to get it. Maeve was useful for people who were film-makers or who were interested in Ireland or women or politics or conflict. When I made it, I was coming from a very raw and radical place. And then I’d meet these students and I’d realise they hated Maeve. They hated writing their thesis on this subject. But because there weren’t many Irish films around, they were stuck with it.”
It’s no wonder that Murphy’s films are like catnip for graduate students. In the early years, her writing inevitably came from big, complex ideas and contemporaneous debates about politics, gender and hegemony.
“I’ve learned so much from teaching students at NYU over the years,” she says. “The students I have there produce very subtle character-driven stories, and I realise that this is very different to the way I used to think. I didn’t think about story. I’d think something like: representations of Northern Ireland are unsatisfactory: I’m going to make Maeve and sort it all out.”
Despite those early theoretical underpinnings, it would be foolish to see Maeve or Anne Devlin in purely conceptual terms. “Both of those films come out of a particular radical time and a particular radical environment,” says Murphy. “They try and engage with those issues that were big at the time. Maeve was asking how does a woman position herself against the background of what was going on in the North and within the history of republicanism and memory and landscape. At the time, people were pushing competing narratives. But my experience was that there was no clear narrative, only a fractured one. I was influenced by Godard and Brecht. But, more than that, with Maeve, anytime I sat down and tried to create a straightforward film with a beginning, middle and end, it just wouldn’t work. When I was at college, all the talk was about the shape of a film or the shape of political cinema. Maeve comes out of that vortex, but it’s equally organic.”
Anne Devlin, by contrast, is rather more straightforward. “Yes. But that’s because I was working from her prison diary. I was amazed by how cinematic it was. Scenes were described in enough detail to construct shots for the movie. I think after making Maeve I became more interested in story. And with Anne Devlin’s journal I wanted to tell a story that was like a ballad.”
A history of the 1798 rebellion from the perspective of someone who has frequently been marginalised or dismissed as Robert Emmet’s housekeeper or Michael Dwyer’s cousin, Murphy’s 1984 drama sought to reclaim rather than revise history.
“Revisionism usually involves an agenda or an ideology,” says Murphy. “But I wasn’t attempted to undermine the existing narrative or create or competing one. I was simply asking people to look as those events from another perspective.”
Despite the costumes and purposeful aesthetic nods to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Anne Devlin seems to be just as engaged with Northern Ireland as Maeve was. Is that how the writer-director remembers it?
“Well, I think of the films as twins that don’t look alike,” says Murphy. “Maeve is questioning all the time and saying ‘no, no, no’. Anne has made a decision and is going down a definite route. Whether the revolution works or not, there’s an inevitability about her commitment. I was curious about her and about people I knew who had that kind of commitment: a commitment I could never have managed.”
The films were controversial on their initial release into a conservative movie marketplace. Over the years, however, the focus for all those inquiring grad students has shifted.
“The people who write to me or talk to me about those films surprise me,” says Murphy. “When Maeve and Anne Devlin came out, they were received very differently. There was a lot of debate as to whether this was a Republican film or this film betrays the Republican cause. All of the conversations I had about the film were about the politics. I don’t remember anyone asking me about what I was trying to do as a director. So it’s interesting because as time passes and the heat of those issues has waned people are more interested in the way it looks or the way it was pieced together. People see them as movies now.”
Murphy has not made a feature film since Nora, her biopic of James Joyce’s muse, starring Susan Lynch. “Nora cured me of any curiosity I had about making period films,” says Murphy. “You’re waiting all day for costume and design and framing.”
Murphy has spent much of the past 12 years teaching. Now, having lectured in Singapore for three years and travelled around India for 10, she’s about to re-enter the fray with a new documentary on Muslim weavers.
“I look back at those older films and it’s really interesting to see how my concerns have shifted,” notes Murphy. “I think and work in a much more organic way now. I’m not thinking ‘I need to make a film about this concept or crisis’. I’ve learned from my students. The focus is no longer on the big things. Then again, the documentary I’m working on is about how globalisation has impacted on a cottage industry. So big ideas do creep back in. But they emerge from the film. It used to be the other way around.”
The IFI presents Focus on Pat Murphy tomorrow and Sunday, July 22nd