Frank Berry, one of our most respected and socially conscious film-makers, is shaking off a very 21st-century class of media kerfuffle.
“Did it surprise me? Yes, it did, it did,” he says calmly.
Berry, who began by making community films as a teacher, first attracted attention with his hugely touching documentary Ballymun Lullaby. An article in this newspaper on youth suicide inspired I Used to Live Here, his debut fictional feature. That incisive film, developed with Killinarden Community Council Youth Project, in Tallaght, was followed up by the internationally acclaimed Michael Inside, which brutally critiqued the Irish penal system.
The picture stars Letitia Wright, best known for Black Panther, as a young Nigerian woman caught up in the Irish immigration system
Few were surprised when Berry then turned his attention to the shame of direct provision, Ireland's often contentious method of housing asylum seekers. "I contacted Lucky Khambule, who is cofounder of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland," he says. "He talked to me about direct provision. And that became weekly meetings. That was four years ago. He opened my eyes to the reality of the direct-provision system and how it affects people."
It was not easy getting a film on such a harrowing subject – the housing of often-traumatised asylum seekers – off the ground, but, as we speak, he is celebrating the end of a successful, Covid-adjusted shoot at Glandore House, a former direct-provision centre. Now titled Aisha, the picture stars Letitia Wright, best known for Black Panther, as a young Nigerian woman caught up in the Irish immigration system. Josh O'Connor, currently playing Prince Charles in The Crown, appears as a former prisoner whom she meets and befriends at the centre.
The initial announcement of the shoot was well received by those familiar with Berry's work. Then Twitter went ballistic. Dozens and dozens piled on to berate the film and its creators. One user referred to the film-makers as "vile creatures". Another described the drama they hadn't seen as "a disgusting movie". In a similar vein, someone posted: "Every single one of the people involved is [sic] this disgusting film can honestly go to hell." Stretching the definition of "Hollywood" way beyond breaking point, a user bellowed: "F**king horrible concept. We need to get rid of direct provision not make it into a story for Hollywood. "
Premature reviews abounded of an unfinished film that had been rigorously researched in consultation with experts on direct provision, the system established in 2000 as a short-term fix for accommodating asylum seekers. (It put them up in often substandard, for-profit centres and, rather than allow them to do paid work, provided a meagre allowance that effectively stopped them from participating in the community around them. Numerous reports documented the harm it did to vulnerable people, including children.)
No one accused Ken Loach of profiting from the unemployed when news emerged of I, Daniel Blake. The key accusation here was that the scenario as described sounded like a 'white saviour' story
It was suggested that Aisha – then titled Provision – would “probably inaccurately represent both the reality of direct provision and the lived experience of asylum seekers”. Would it? Why? A further tweet noted: “Haven’t even resolved issues pertaining to Direct Provision, but you lot already want to profit off it.”
What on earth was going on? No one accused Ken Loach – an unavoidable inspiration for Berry's films – of profiting from the unemployed when news emerged of I, Daniel Blake. The key accusation here was that the scenario as described sounded like a "white saviour" story. "Provision will tell the story of … a young African woman fleeing persecution who ends up spending over two years in Ireland's asylum system … While there, she befriends a security guard (O'Connor), who emphasises with her plight," the Hollywood Reporter explained.
Berry seems to have largely avoided the Twitter fallout, but some of it inevitably got through.
“Well, I haven’t seen much of that,” he says. “And all I would say is that the film is not one of those stories. And if anybody cares to look at my previous films, they can see the type of films that I make. They are purposeful films that look at society. They are social dramas. They just need to look at my previous films to see the type of work that I do.”
Another accusation fuelling the pile-on was that Wright, a British actor born in Guyana, had been cast as an African character. Does he acknowledge a problem there?
“Well, I think she’s an amazing actor,” he says. “And she’s somebody who connects very much with the themes of the film. You want to cast the best actor you can find. And she’s an incredible actor. She gives an amazing performance.”
It is surely hard to step back and see any humour in this, but the suggestion that Aisha, a modestly budgeted coproduction between Screen Ireland, BBC Films and other independent companies, is an emanation of "Hollywood" must cause him some wry amusement.
“Yeah, well … It’s obviously inaccurate,” he says blankly.
One of the things that struck me was the lack of a vulnerability assessment for people who come to Ireland seeking protection. The big problem a lot of people have is the waiting. The pain of not knowing what your future is
It’s clear that Berry, as you might expect from a former teacher, sees the film as both a drama and an educational resource. He wants to get the truth about direct provision out there.
“It’s a system that is oppressive,” he says. “One of the things that struck me in my early conversations was the lack of a vulnerability assessment for people who come to Ireland seeking protection … And the big problem a lot of people have is the waiting. The pain of not knowing what your future is – before you can continue with your life.”
Aisha now moves into postproduction. Berry hopes to have it finished by the end of the year, with a mind to a premiere at one of the big festivals in 2022. Then the public can comment on a film they have actually seen.
“My work has a central social issue that I am interested in exploring,” Berry says. “I follow my own intuition, and I have found a way of working that is satisfying for me.”