Through a lens brightly


PROFILE:Camerawoman Orla Russell Conway has defied illness and the challenges of working in a male-dominated field. Now her first film is to be screened in Hollywood, writes SINEAD GLEESON

FOR ANY GRADUATE, the first year after college can be both daunting and exhilarating. It’s a time for consolidating your place in the world and putting your academic or creative aspirations in motion – 2003 was such a year for film producer Orla Russell-Conway, who had worked on the award-winning short Full Circle. Having graduated from DIT with a master’s in film theory and production, a film-making future filled with possibility awaited her. Instead, she was diagnosed with systemic lupus, which has inhibited but not impeded her work. The illness – an inflammatory disease affecting the body’s immune system – is incurable.

“It’s such an ongoing thing that just wipes you out,” says Russell-Conway. “I have so many things I want to do but it’s hard when your body is attacking its own cells. My skin is very light-sensitive and I have to wear factor-60 suncream all the time.”

Not long after her lupus diagnosis in 2003, Russell-Conway also suffered a stroke, aged just 27. Arthritic joint pain has been debilitating and last year she had a spinal cord implant fitted. In spite of this, she has managed to be productive, thanks to a working relationship with Fergal Rock, an old college friend. Rock “was always writing”, she says, and he gave her the script of a short film he’d written called Henry Sunny. “He first showed it to me in college and I fell in love with it. I knew I wanted to make the film.”

In a bittersweet twist, illness had depleted her creative energy, but it also entitled her to apply for a grant from the Arts and Disability Forum, which is how the film got made.

Henry Sunny tells the story of Henry, a clown who falls in love with Sunny, a TV soap actress. He ardently admires her from afar, writing her letters, but it’s not merely a boy-fails-to-meet-girl trope: this is a time when clowns are treated as second-class citizens and the story takes place during a recession. There are definite parallels with the Irish economy and being an outsider (either in terms of race, disability or creativity). Was this something she felt herself as a disabled person or as a woman working in a male-dominated field?

“I have to admit that it wasn’t so much my marginalisation from society that I recognised in the clowns, but my marginalisation from the conventional film industry itself. I remember a producer telling me to just give up because I couldn’t be a camerawoman who was both disabled and a woman. It made me so angry. Camera and lighting work is traditionally very male because it’s so technical. I realised that if I had my own camera, I could do my own thing. In the conventional industry, you have to work your way up as loader, focus puller and I couldn’t do that kind of physical work. If I had my own equipment, I would have all I needed on set.”

The Disabled Artists award enabled Russell-Conway to buy a camera. She also received a grant from the council to adapt her bathroom, which resulted in a serendipitous meeting.

“This guy came around to work on the tiling and commented on the art, my books, etc, and we got talking. I immediately thought he might be right for the part of Henry. He was Portuguese and had been a very successful fado singer back home, even releasing albums on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. After moving to Ireland to pursue a music career, he had ended up working for Dublin City Council, but we showed him the script and he loved it.” The Portuguese singer was Paulo Bragança, and the actress who plays his on-screen love interest, Dorothy Cotter, was randomly introduced to the film-makers through a mutual friend. Cotter and Fergal Rock ended up in a relationship.

The film itself has been commended at several festivals, including a special mention at the Clones Film Festival and top place in the public vote at the Rotterdam Film Festival. In August this year, the Feel Good Film Festival has invited Rock and Russell-Conway to screen their film in Hollywood and they’re desperately trying to raise funds to get there.

“We had no budget for Henry Sunny – we used our houses as the set and rounded up our friends as extras – but if we could get to Hollywood in August, we might be able to sell the distribution rights.” Rock is nominated for best director and Cotter for best actress. Their next project, On Our Way, was made on a similarly minute budget and the drawbacks are not as simple as relying on favours or friends who will work for free.

“We had to shoot night scenes without lighting, so the work itself was affected by the lack of cash.” A fundraiser is planned to help fund the Hollywood trip and will feature a screening of the film and music from Cotter’s band Eleventy Four, The Dead Flags and Paulo Bragança.

“Going to Hollywood, for me personally, proves that having a disability doesn’t mean I am automatically excluded from film-making. I may not ‘make it’ via the traditional routes, but I still have the talent and skills I had before I got sick. To be invited to such a prestigious international festival is a massive personal validation for me, and a huge incentive to keep on making films independently.”

The Henry Sunny fundraiser takes place from 8pm tomorrow at the Odessa Club. Entry costs €8. See