A serious comedy about a strangely forbidden love
Until recently, it was illegal for people with intellectual disabilities to have sex. ‘Sanctuary’ cleverly and playfully manages the issue without being preachy
The cast and crew of Sanctuary have been on a long and exciting journey. One year ago, Len Collins’s touching film, a serious comedy featuring actors with intellectual disabilities, premiered to rapturous ovations at the Galway Film Fleadh. Since then it has played in Toronto, Luxembourg and New York. Last February, the team behind Sanctuary, which originated as a play by Galway’s Blue Teapot Theatre Company, won the Michael Dwyer Discovery Award at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
“I find people are constantly surprised by the film,” Christian O’Reilly, the screenwriter, laughs. “They are surprised that it is actually good. They are surprised at the quality of the acting. ‘Who are these people?’ That’s a great thing.”
When you talk about the law, it would be really hard for somebody like Kieran and myself if we did want a relationship
Two of those people are in the Radisson Hotel to discuss the imminent theatrical release of Sanctuary. Kieran Coppinger and Charlene Kelly, both of whom are intellectually disabled, play a couple who, skiving off from a group trip to the pictures, rent a room for an evening of privacy and intimacy.
There is a political point worth making here. The film reveals that it is illegal under Irish law for unmarried people with intellectual disabilities to have sex. An extraordinary situation.
“When you talk about the law, it would be really hard for somebody like Kieran and myself if we did want a relationship,” Charlene says. “If we were to do it ourselves, that would be very hard.”
The diverse, often hilarious, characters in Sanctuary were written with the actors in mind. Little bits of the real people slip on to the screen. In person, Charlene and Kieran make a complementary impression. He is sober and straight backed. Charlene is chatty, energetic and eager to find the humour in any situation. That was some canny casting.
“I have epilepsy. So I am on tablets for that,” Charlene says. “I told Christian if he was writing the script that Sophie, my character, would need to take that medication. It’s under control since 2009.”
Those telling details add necessary verisimilitude to a sensitive drama. This is very much how Blue Teapot has always functioned. Established in 1996, the organisation was set up to investigate how creativity might help develop the social skills that people with intellectual disabilities need. Early this century, Blue Teapot established a professional theatre company aimed at developing polished productions in various genres.
“I wanted to bring training into the company,” Petal Pilley, Blue Teapot’s director, explains. “People often confused lack of training with the disability. It was very hard for people with intellectual disabilities to gain those skills. We wanted them to be ready to work at a professional level.”
Petal and her colleagues keep their eyes and ears open for participants with a “passion for performing”. They also seek out those who have the stamina to tour and to apply themselves nightly. What makes actors like Charlene and Kieran stand out?
“They were best for the piece,” she says. “When Christian and I workshopped it was clear that, in terms of the gravitas required, it was Kieran and Charlene.”
Christian and Petal eventually hooked up with the experienced producer Edwina Forkin and they set about convincing the financiers that Sanctuary could make a worthwhile feature film. Forkin remembers inviting decision makers from RTÉ and The Irish Film Board down to see Blue Teapot perform at Liberty Hall in Dublin.
“I felt I needed to get them into a room and get them to see these guys act,” Edwina says. “They came along and they just got it.”
It wasn’t quite as simple as that, of course. But, after a year or so of juggling, Edwina eventually got the money together. RTÉ, The Irish Film Board and the Broadcast Authority of Ireland all came on board. But there was no immediate cash flow. Forkin took a loan and the production was up and running for Christmas of 2015.
“We had to work really hard and into the evening,” Kieran remembers. “We all did some mornings. Some of us were needed at different days. I’d love to work on another film. It’s hard work. But it’s worth it.”
“Would you be a director or an actor?” Charlene asks.
“Ah, an actor,” Kieran says with characteristic seriousness.
There was not a great deal of money around, but the good people at the Nox Hotel in Galway provided the team with locations, accommodation and a very fine breakfast. That city’s Christmas market offered a pretty, snowy backdrop. Local pubs were helpful. The expanded script saw various company members fleshing out roles as their characters wandered about the city in search of the missing couple.
“What I thought was so beautiful about the set was that there was no moaning,” Forkin says. “There was such a feel-good atmosphere. It was all hugs and such fun. They worked hard and they were the most professional people I have ever worked with.”
Sanctuary is in some sense a campaigning film. Until this year, people with intellectual disabilities were prohibited from having sex. A new law, introduced in March, repealed the ban, and it instead considers whether a person with an intellectual disability has the capacity to consent to a sexual relationship. A new category of “protected person” was also created, for people who don’t have the capacity to consent to a sexual act, due to a mental or intellectual disability.
Few citizens are probably aware of the change in the law. The picture briskly addresses the supposed justification for the earlier legislation.
“With this subject matter there is a danger of being preachy,” Christian O’Reilly, who also wrote the story for Inside I’m Dancing, explains. “That earnestness can be a turn off. I’ve ‘tackled issues’ in other things I’ve done and once you say that you’re doomed. We found a way round that by devising a scenario that’s fun.”
“Playful?” Charlene chips in.
“Yeah, that’s the word.”
Wrapping the message in an entertaining package seems to have worked a treat. The picture’s humanist message has already connected with audiences in all corners of the globe. Kieran was among those accompanying the film to New York.
“It’s a big place. A very interesting place,” he says.
Along the way, Blue Teapot’s founding purpose seem to have been honoured. The cast have prospered from the experience and, on the evidence of the current promotional duties, Kieran and Charlene have no problem connecting with interested and impressed strangers.
“My character has Down syndrome,” he says. “I have that too. I am okay with that. It doesn’t bother me. My mum and dad have seen the film loads of times and they are very happy and supportive.”
As regards the film’s sex scenes: “They were a bit surprised at first. But it happens. You know?”
As Petal Pilley explains, the Blue Teapot ethos is very much that of a professional company. The actors are held to certain standards. They are expected to commit themselves.
In recent seasons they have delivered a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring Charlene as Helena. Their next big venture is a version of Dancing At Lughnasa with Rose – a character written as intellectually disabled – being played, for perhaps the first time, by somebody who understands that experience.
“The one thing I wanted to do was be an actress,” Charlene says. “I would watch Anne Hathaway’s movies because she is my favourite and that gave me the idea of doing acting and joining the company. I did a little bit from Snow White for my audition. But they wouldn’t give me a broom.”
Charlene has been with Blue Teapot for a decade and her work for the company takes up a significant part of her week. She and her co-star seem as wound in with the organisation as any member of the RSC would be with theirs. They are lively, connected and communicative. But both are able to address the unhappy realities that still dog disabled people.
“Sometimes when I have a heavy cup of tea I’ll have to get somebody to pour some out,” she says, addressing the shakes that come with her epilepsy. “There are some things I can do and some things I can’t. Some times I get mocked for it. If I was out people would say: ‘Look at her! She’s not able to walk steady.’ That’s not fair to me. You shouldn’t mock people with a disability.”
We can hope that Sanctuary does something to push that indisputable message home.
Unhappy history: a history of film and intellectual disability
Great controversy still surrounds the casting of disabled parts in mainstream cinemas. Uncomfortable jokes in Tropic Thunder and the TV series Extras point out that there is no easier way to an Oscar than impersonating a disabled person. Some physically disabled actors have triumphed. In 1947, Harold Russell, who lost both his hands in an army training incident, won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives.
Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, took best actress for Children of a Lesser God in 1986. For the most part directors have allowed show-boating able-bodied stars to play intellectually disabled people. We think of Sean Penn hamming it up in I Am Sam or Dustin Hoffman doing something only a little more subtle in Rain Man. Hats off to the few film-makers who make an effort.
Pascal Duquenne, who has Down syndrome, was super opposite Daniel Auteuil in The Eighth Day. And then there are the unlikely heroes that are the Farrelly Brothers. The masters of gross-out have long featured intellectually disabled actors in their films. In 2005, they produced The Ringer, which surrounded Johnny Knoxville with a whole gang of such performers. It’s a hoot.