Mo O’Connell on Haven, Hum and Bruise

Maureen ‘Mo’ O’Connell has had a busy couple of years. A director shorts, features and plays, Mo also brings up the work of others, as head of the Dublin International Comedy Film Festival. Recent shorts by the Dublin director show her range, with Haven, Hum and Bruise all stirring different emotions with powerful visuals. 

Haven is current, well-considered and emotionally impactful. It centres on a bond that grows between two very different characters: a lonely sheep farmer in her 60’s, Carmel, a Mothers and Baby’s Home Survivor, and an inquisitive teenage Somalian girl Tanaka, who is living in the local refugee centre in the village. They form an unlikely friendship, drawn together by similar experiences, before we see old and new tragedies surface.

Funded by the Kerry Short Film Bursary, provided by Kerry County Council & the Arts Council of Ireland to support and encourage filmmaking within the county, the film shows the possibilities and the shameful barriers for people to connect in modern Ireland, and the imposed cruelties of the State reverberating still.

Bruise follows the journey of Heather, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, who manages to escape her domestic prison, only to find herself vulnerable to the many threats that wait just beyond her front door. The story is told via theatrical dance, with lead Emily Kilkenny-Roddy’s performance serving as a moving and immersive focal point.

Meanwhile in Hum, Bosco Hogan and Barry John Kinsella as Cecil and Tim respectively have a charming, enlightening conversation, surrounded by art and creating it in kind. Tim seeks refuge in an empty gallery. He prays for silence and solitude. His prayers are ignored, as gallery regular Cecil takes him on an abstract journey of interaction and appreciation. Shot in the Hugh Lane Gallery, the short is a heartening experience of the arts come alive. 

With each film currently succeeding on the festival circuit, we caught up with Mo recently to talk about her work and approach to storytelling.p

Haven has had success on the festival circuit and deservedly so. It’s a very powerful film. What is it like as a filmmaker to get that endorsement from festivals, particularly international ones?

It’s great because you need to celebrate the hard work and short films aren’t seen by particularly large audiences, so the main thing you’re making it for is to show it to as wide an audience as possible. You want to connect with people, that’s why you’re a storyteller, you know. So when it does well, especially abroad, it feels like we did something right all of us together making it. We told a story that doesn’t just translate in Ireland, it can hit home abroad with people who don’t know our history or what’s going on in Ireland today.

It’s a relief in a way, because so much work goes into it, it can be gruelling, so you’re always following the light and hoping for a good reception. When you get the thumbs up from festivals, you think “thank Christ”, it’s a relief that you got it across the line. 

This story hits quite hard, and unfortunately over the last few months, it’s become more timely than ever. What would you most like Irish audiences to take from this film, and who do you think needs to see this film the most?

I suppose the people out protesting against these poor people coming in. We are those people for God’s sake. That’s what you want to get across with Haven. I focus on the friendship with the characters with this backdrop and framework of both the Irish State and the Church and the damage -sometimes irreparable- that they’ve done to people.  It sounds so cheesy, but these people are our brothers and sisters, these ideas of race and nationality are so preposterous, ludicrous, you want to remind people of their humanity and to convey it to them in people or characters that they feel are alien to them- without preaching of course! People coming here are just trying to survive, like Irish people have done throughout history. 

What these people have gone through getting here and they are then treated terribly by the Irish State, it’s horrific.

Yet, even going through this they’re so beautiful. Bontha who plays Tamaka, she was four years in a DP centre in Kerry, but her and her whole family- they’d put you to shame. They don’t have much, but they are so grateful for everything they do have, they shine happiness, understanding and humanity. I just have so much respect and admiration for them and what I’d like people to see is that people like this who come here, they deserve our love and our friendship and our help.

Is it difficult to ask a child like that to tap into the emotions and themes that come up in Haven? Or when the performer is clearly confident does that make it easier?

I didn’t want to cast someone who had no experience of living in Direct Provision. For Bontha, because she’s gone through it, there’s a resonance there that she doesn’t have to work for. You know when the casting is right. Her history is already there, the backstory exists, she doesn’t have to dig for it.

There’s a scene where they’re sitting on the sofa, herself and Maria. Bontha had to talk about DP so just before we’d go for the take, I’d just talk to her about her own experiences, just enough to stir it up in her because it wasn’t a scene where we needed tears or anything, just truthfulness. You need that truthfulness, and it was just there.

Off camera, how was the chemistry developed between Maria and Bontha because it’s so key to this film’s story? 

With Maria, the first thing I suppose I did was I also found the beautiful Maggie Corbett. I needed to talk to someone who had gone through a Mothers and Babies home. She lives in Kilkenny, so we all went down there and met her. She had two kids taken from her, she’s only managed to since meet one. We spoke to her for basically the whole day.

Maria is the type of actor that you don’t really direct too much. She’s a titan, she’s well aware so for direction it was only ever tiny, tiny things. Developing the bond between her and Bontha, because we were still going through COVID I couldn’t always get them to physically meet, but we had lots of Zoom rehearsals and then when they did meet on set I had scheduled in time for rehearsal and for them just having the chats together. Anyone would fall in love with the pair of them, Maria’s just like a roaring fire of a person, so warm, and she’s so funny as well and very wise. And Bontha is like light herself, the pair got on like a house on fire. 

There’s this combination of empathy and anger to the character of Carmel – what did Maria respond to most to bring to this performance?

She just fell in love with the script and almost immediately was like, ‘I am Carmel’. Women at a certain age don’t get cast in good parts, you’re either the mammy, the granny, you’re like a bit of wallpaper and background bit of kind of wallpaper and background…but Maria is incredibly powerful, she’s an original and there’s no bullshit about her.

In her bedroom scenes as well, she really responded to those as well. It can be hard as a woman when you’re showing off her body, again you don’t see older women’s bodies that much on screen, but she was all up for that. She relished it, it’s a role she’s really always wanted to play.

This short was shot on location in Kerry and it looks great, which makes it all the more heart-breaking when the rug is pulled out from under us as viewers. What was the location scouting like for the film?

Very difficult in some ways but quite easy in others! Firstly I gave a shout out on Facebook that we were looking for sheep farms in Kerry, we got loads of responses and made a list. Another filmmaker emailed me about the Top of Coom pub, they told us Tim and Eileen who run it are really sound and would help us out with everything. At this point though, I was on crutches. 

Oh God!

 Yeah, I busted my calf muscle. I was filming another film at the time, in a place where I maybe shouldn’t have been filming? …Perhaps it wasn’t altogether legal? … Anyway, I was legging it with the film crew and hopped a fence and when I landed on the ground it felt like somebody had shot me in the calf! 

You’re suffering for your art Mo!

Totally! I still finished that shoot though- before I went to A&E! Then I was on my crutches, I was producing Lambing for Katie McNeice in Kildare and when that finished, 5 days later I was on the set for Haven. I wasn’t able to drive myself to Kerry to look for locations, so my dad gave me a lift down and Kerry filmmaker Adam Ryall helped me. His friend Billy Downes came to give me a lift around Kerry to all these locations we had shortlisted. 

It was funny because I was on my crutches the whole time, you’re going around fields trying to keep up with farmers who are legging it around their land, I nearly killed myself flying along on the crutches and trying to converse with them at the same time. Eventually, we got to Top of Coombe, and Tim and Eileen were amazing, they gave us everything.  They let us shoot in their fields and wrangled their sheep for filming. They wouldn’t take payment either so we kind of paid in food and teas and coffee, they were astonishing to us. 

Looking for farmhouses, we went looking with Billy and weren’t hearing back much from places, we were running out of options, I was thinking, that’s it, this isn’t going to happen. We went to Top of Coom, I said let’s just drive past and see if there are any farmhouses, we were driving, there was all this mist around us and then suddenly it cleared and I looked to my left and there was this farm, it was perfect! 

I got out on my crutches hopping along and there’s two people sitting outside just looking at me kind of going, who the hell is this? I got up to them, I just explained who I was, that we were Kerry County Council funded and we were filming, could they use their house, saying this all out of breath, and they said yes, it was brilliant. 

One thing that I appreciate about you as a storyteller is that you are always looking at different genres and different kinds of stories. How as a director, decide what stories are most interesting to you?

I just like different genres. I’m going at horror next because I haven’t done that one yet! 

The main thing that I look for is liveliness in a story, whatever the genre if the story isn’t lively I’m not hugely interested. And anything that I can really get passionate about and get behind, like with Haven, going after Mothers and Babies homes and things that just make me so angry.

Also, domestic violence/sexual assault/femicide etc… understatement here: these things make me angry.

However, with Bruise, I’ve never done anything using the physical body like that, so I was trying to make a dance piece that’s not a normal ‘dance piece’, I wanted to make a dance piece that was less theatrical. I’ve directed theatre but when you’re directing something theatrical on film, it can feel far away from you/audience, I suppose I wanted to bring the viewer in.

It’s a great example of form following a function in terms of the kind of story that Bruise is telling. To bring you into that physicality, it can be a distancing thing, but it actually brings in you closer.

I’m really stimulated by things that challenge me and scare me. I change a lot because I go, ‘I’ve done that and now I want to try something else’. That was the case with Bruise and also with Hum

Hum had that life that I like. From something that is just one room and two actors, the way that it moves and has that energy was really impressive.

That was the challenge for Hum, can I make this engaging when it’s one space, two actors sitting on the same line, not moving. Can I make paintings that are flat against the wall come alive, give them character and get then moving as well, can I make the space feel alive?

The camera really moves, the actors are energised but they’re stationary, so the camera really takes responsibility to accentuates the emotions.

Working with Burschi Wojnar, he’s brilliant, and very fast. I met a few DOPs, but he and agreed immediately about how to shoot and get that movement.

It’s great to get someone why syncs up with you and your ideas. I do storyboards, they make sense for me getting a shot list and placing the characters. I’d run those by Burschi, he’s great at taking your ideas on board, he has his own suggestions too but he really takes your ideas and goes one step further and make them more slick. It was a really satisfying experience on the set of Hum, one that I really enjoyed.

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