So, what are pyjama girls really like?
They have been caricatured much in the media in the recent past, but a new documentary film looks sympathetically at the lives of working-class girls
THE SENSITIVE viewer could be forgiven for approaching Maya Derrington’s Pyjama Girlswith caution. Over the last few years, the wearing of pyjamas outside the house has, for too many mainstream media outlets, become synonymous with social exclusion and loss of self-respect. To listen to the middle-class gripers on the radio, you’d think the donning of terry cotton nightwear is akin to horse theft or benefit fraud.
Happily, Maya’s fine documentary could not be less patronising. A young mother, originally from Bristol, Derrington admits that the initial spur was, indeed, a desire to document the current tendency for working-class girls to keep the jammies on all day. But, as work progressed, the picture developed into a genuinely touching, unusually warm study of two teenage Dublin girls from Ballyfermot. Lauren Dempsey and Tara Sallinger come across as noisy, troubled, smart and an absolute hoot. The film is resolutely on their side.
“I did begin with a fascination for this pyjama phenomenon,” Maya says. “But then, on another level, I was genuinely fascinated with life in the flats. I used to walk past Charlemont Street flats and wonder about the contrast between me walking to work in TV and these snippets of life that I would catch. I wanted to step over this boundary that frightened me. I wanted them to think of me as a person also.”
Initially researching in Basin Street Flats, near Dublin’s James Street, Maya and her team assembled a series of short interviews on the pyjama issue. A few citizens seemed interested, but drifted away as the project progressed. Then, after moving operations several kilometres to the west, Maya bumped into Lauren and Tara.
“We initially had completely different main subjects,” she says. “But we said we’d do a bit of filming with Tara and Lauren because they were interested in talking to us. What we encountered reminded me so much of my own teenage years. They have this love-hate thing. But they give each other so much support. That’s something we don’t give kids credit for.”
You get the sense that the film-makers have delicately tip-toed around certain sensitive issues. Lauren’s mother, who has had serious problems with drugs, is, for instance, an invisible, though unavoidable, presence in the film. We meet Lauren’s grandmother – another raucous character – but the generation in between is conspicuous by its absence.
“We could have had the mother in,” Maya says. “I did meet her and, yes, she was wearing pyjamas. But actually it was important to me that she was an invisible character. She represents a missing generation of parents – my generation, really – that is, the much-documented drug generation. It was important to me that she was notable by her absence.”
While watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary, the viewer is never quite sure to what extent the film-makers are interfering with the action. Surely, the very presence of a camera will cause the subject to behave differently. Extroverts will show off. Introverts will crawl even deeper into their protective shells. Derrington explains that the project took two years to complete. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine that Tara and Lauren ever entirely got over the novelty of being movie stars.
“That’s a good question. You never really know what influence you are having. It was usually just two of us with a small camera, and I do believe that people eventually forget about you. If you are quiet and unobtrusive, you’d be amazed by things that happen in front of you.” And, of course, a movie camera is now a household object. Following advances in mobile phone technology, most teenagers now have such an object in their hip pockets.
“That’s right. Young people today are so engaged with the technological side of the media that they are not even aware of a camera being there. Tara and Lauren are constantly documenting their own lives.” Spend some time with Derrington, and you understand how she gets people to open up. Amiable and unpretentious, she comes across as the sort of person who would be equally happy chatting to a duke or a doorman.
Her route from Bristol to Pyjama Girlsis an unlikely one. Derrington studied English at Goldsmiths College in South London – alma mater of Damien Hirst and many of the other “Young British Artists” – but admits that, a scrappy student, she always felt herself “too cool for school”. Following graduation, she worked in the Soho offices of Bloomsbury Books. After two years, she decided, however, that a change of scene was in order. Why Dublin? “It really was completely random,” she says. “Me and my sister decided to do something different. I had been over to Dublin for a weekend recently and we flipped a coin to decide whether we’d move to Dublin or Belfast. This is simply how it worked out.” How bizarre. As things transpired, Derrington found her feet fairly rapidly. She took a job in Arthouse – that ill-defined, now defunct multimedia edifice in Temple Bar – and soon secured work on television documentaries. One of her earliest associates was Nicky Gogan, busy producer and director, and, in 2006, they joined forces with Paul Rowley to form the innovative company Still Films. Among the company’s earliest work was Rowley and Gogan’s Seaview, an eccentric study of the holiday resort turned asylum-seekers’ capmp in Mosney, Co Meath.
Pyjama Girls, playing commercially at the Irish Film Institute, looks set, however, to nudge Still Films’ profile that bit further into the spotlight. Made on a skimpy budget, the picture is never likely to compete with Toy Story 3 on the box-office chart, but it tells a strong, often sad, story that should appeal to a mainstream audience.
Mind you, some fusspots will worry about the whole concept of presenting images of working-class life to a largely bourgeois audience. Is there a danger of the film being seen as vehicle for inter-class tourism? “I suppose I wilfully wanted to draw people in who want to know why people wear pyjamas at all hours and to answer some of their outrage,” she muses. “Then my intention is that they will actually see these engaging characters and sympathise with them. But I really have been surprised by people who come out of the film and find it hard to be sympathetic.” Really? The picture seems so generous to its subjects and, for all their occasional bolshiness, Tara and Lauren come across as decent, engaging people.
“Well, that’s what I’d hoped. But some people felt intimidated. They had flashbacks to scary situations in buses. They identified them as the scary girls on the buses. It’s mainly men who react that way. Women identify with them much more easily. But I read one online review that was outraged the film wasn’t a voice-overed documentary about the pyjama thing. What can you do?” Such criticisms can probably be ignored. But Maya does acknowledge that some viewers may, quite reasonably, object to the film-makers’ decision to subtitle the entire picture. This is a very tricky issue.
We pour scorn on Americans for occasionally subtitling Irish, Scottish or Northern English pictures. Yet, when Pyjama Girlsopens in the IFI, the mode of presentation will imply that many punters cannot understand a dialect spoken hundreds of yards from the cinema.
“Initially I was very against it,” she says with a wince. “The whole film works a lot better without it. But, basically, the feedback we were getting was that people plain couldn’t understand it. I could understand it. But even some people from Dublin couldn’t understand it. But obviously there is an offensive element to subtitling.” I get the sense that this issue caused a real brawl in the offices of Still Films.
“We only had the budget for one print and if we were to have any chance of getting it out there internationally, we basically had to subtitle it. We had a long debate, during which we all switched sides many times. It was so hard.” Showing the film to snooty men who have experienced (bless them) scary incidents on buses was one thing. Unveiling it before punters unfamiliar with the Dublin argot must also have been frightening. But I would imagine that the tensest screening was that for Lauren and Tara. The two girls do not appear to be backwards in coming forwards.
“That was the most nerve-wracking bit of the process,” she agrees.
“And I made sure to show it to them before anybody else. The things that troubled them weren’t the things that we thought would trouble them. It was: ‘No. I look awful in that shot.’ But I was impressed they were able to laugh with the film. At the end they were surprised and said ‘You know what? That’s actually quite a good film.’” Quite right too. They should put their quote on the poster.
Pyjama Girlsopens at the Irish Film Institute on August 20th