Muhammad Ali, a young Irish boxer and a 10-year labour of love

Float like a Butterfly has been worth every tough moment for director Carmel Winters

What was it John F Kennedy said about the space programme? We choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard. Something like that.

Nearly a decade ago, Carmel Winters’s Snap, a fascinating psychological drama, proved a significant hit with the world’s critics. It has taken until now to get her second feature before the general public.

“I couldn’t have picked a harder film to get made,” she says. “What kept me on track was the thought that if it is this hard to get this film made then if I don’t make it nobody else will.”

I was called in for an audition two years prior to the interview that actually led to me getting the part. That was in a boxing ring. Very unorthodox

The film in question ended up being called Float like a Butterfly. Last September, Winters's dogged persistence paid off when it landed amid metaphorical fireworks at the Toronto International Film Festival. Young Hazel Doupe stars as a Traveller who, during the early 1970s, becomes a dedicated boxer and – taking Muhammad Ali as her model – scraps her way through all sorts of adolescent traumas. The film got rave reviews. It attracted a following. It won the Fipresci Discovery Prize.


I remember Carmel, a Cork woman with a hefty reservoir of chat, bouncing on stage as if propelled by zephyrs of good will.

“I felt this tide of love toward the film at the end,” she says. “Then I heard that I should change my ticket and stay until the last day – a wink and an elbow that there is a prize.”

The win would have made waves at home anyway, but the story was made a bit zestier by the news that Carmel and her partner, the production designer Toma McCullim, got married during the festival. There was a great deal of celebration about the place.

"On Wednesday evening we were trying out bits and bobs of clothes for the premiere," she remembers. "And I had bought these cream, patent shoes in Spain at a market. I hadn't worn them because I thought they were a bit funereal looking. Toma had drawn on them with markers. When I put them on they were quite Frida Kahloish. I looked at them and thought: they look like wedding shoes. And she said: 'Will we?'"

Winter closed in. The film had its triumphant Irish premiere at the Cork Film Festival and, as spring sets in, the film arrives in domestic cinemas. Though she is still only 17, Hazel Doupe has been associated with the project for years. She was interviewed early on. The project then went into hiatus while Carmel fought to get financing.

"I was called in for an audition two years prior to the interview that actually led to me getting the part," says Hazel, whom we named as one of Ireland's hottest young talents at the start of the year. "That was in a boxing ring. Very unorthodox. We did different activities, games and improvisational techniques. Carmel said that from the moment I delivered the first line she wanted me in the film. I assumed the role had then gone to someone else. But the two years that elapsed allowed me to grow into the role. It would have been unrealistic for the scenes to take place with a 13-year-old girl."

We meet after school in a central Dublin hotel. Cheery in a denim jacket, Hazel, raised in north Co Dublin, displays not an ounce of stage-school pretension throughout her articulate answers. She is confident without being arrogant. Mind you, she has been at this for a while.

“I have to thank my drama teacher Mary Murray,” she says. “She is a key figure. She took me into her drama course when I was about nine years old. The first audition I went for I was lucky enough to get. It’s insane to say I have been acting for eight years. That was my first role and I got the bug.”

She has appeared in Ripper Street, Titanic: Blood and Steel and Frank Berry's excellent Michael Inside, from last year. After the success at Toronto, her phone turned red hot and she has two further features in the can. How the heck do you combine that with school?

“I am still trying to figure that out for myself,” she says. “Making Float like a Butterfly wasn’t difficult at all. I was in transition year. So you are not missing anything. It was great work experience. At the end of the day, I just have to do the things I’m doing.”

Hazel is keen to clarify that she approached Frances, her character in Float like a Butterfly, as she would any other. The film begins with the girl’s dad being dragged off to jail and then gets properly going when he is released back to the family. Emotional distance has set in. They end up working through difficulties over a turbulent road trip.

“I chose to play her as an individual with struggles – rather than ‘a Traveller girl,’” she says. “I wouldn’t want to put anybody in a box. Generalising like that doesn’t come naturally to me.”

Often when people do 'Traveller' it's a disaster. That's not one person. How would you play 'settled'? Which 'Traveller' are you going to emulate?

It is tricky for film-makers from outside the community to tell such a story. No doubt there are some people, in the current climate, who argue that no settled person should approach material about Travellers. Carmel Winters addresses the issue without being asked.

“Often when people do ‘Traveller’ it’s a disaster,” she says. “That’s not one person. How would you play ‘settled’? Which ‘Traveller’ are you going to emulate?”

Winters admits to struggling with these issues throughout the film's long gestation. She references the Traveller John Connors, seen to advantage in the hit movie Cardboard Gangsters, when teasing apart these issues.

"I would be sympathetic to the idea that it will be great when we see Travellers' stories told entirely by Travellers," she says. "I don't doubt that John Connors – who I have spent a lot of time with – is going to make a brilliant film when he makes one. That story isn't being told right now. My partner said: 'Why don't you set it in Kanturk where you're from?' And the family story would change very little if they were settled."

So, she knew it could be a settled story. One of the chief inspirations was, after all, Katie Taylor (you guessed it), and that boxer has never moved far from the sunny streets of Bray. But there was something about the Traveller aesthetic that stuck with Carmel. It seemed a vital colour to the project.

"I will never forget when Mary Robinson said the test of a human right is when every single person has that right – not just the most obvious person," she says. "So it's really about a girl's right to self-determination. I live in Ireland. If I travel farthest from the centre that already has that right where do I find myself? I find myself with a Traveller girl."

At any rate, she stuck to her guns and, at its Cork premiere, the film played triumphantly to an audience featuring many from the Traveller community. The daughter of a bookmaker, the sister of a prominent horse trainer, Carmel was hailed – as only the citizens of that city can manage – as a returning hero of the proudest stripe.

There was a mass of Travellers in the audience who were on their feet. The hugs. The thank-yous. The cheering. The kids were walking out of there so tall

“I said to people: be there! There was a mass of Travellers in the audience who were on their feet. The hugs. The thank-yous. The cheering. The kids, who were there with their families, were walking out of there so tall – seeing their world as the centre, not the sideline. They were seeing themselves in a heroic light. A lot of people came up to me and said: ‘Who told you that?’ They were saying: ‘How did you know that?’”

Hazel was similarly swept away by the experience. “That was a family event,” she says. “We had so many people who worked on the film, There were so many jokes being spread around. It’s funny the difference in sense of humour between the Irish and the Canadians. There are jokes thrown in and the Irish audiences lapped that up. They caught every bit.”

So one long road has come to an end. Winters, an experienced and admired playwright even before the release of Snap, has flung every ounce of her considerable energy into the project. It’s hard not to catch a few parallels between the director and her determined young hero. Just look how both scrap.

“What she’s trying to do is give her best according to how she understands it,” Winters says. “A lot of people – I didn’t see it myself – said: ‘She’s a lot like you, Carmel.’”

And yet it still took almost the entire decade to get Floats like a Butterfly into cinemas. The film emerges as conversation bubbles about the continuing challenges for female directors. Women struggle to get a first film made. Many of those – even if they’ve delivered a smash – struggle further to deliver the follow-up. Has that situation improved at all?

“I think if you are not behaving yourself – not saying what people want to hear – that marks you out,” she says with pointed emphasis. “And it makes it even more difficult for a woman.”

It’s enough to make you spit.

Float like a Butterfly is released on Friday, May 10th