Dir. Perry Ogden, Ireland, 2005, 87 mins
Cast: Winnie Maughan, Rose Maughan, Rosie Maughan, Paddy Maughan
Review by Lorna Allen
Forget the bareknuckle boxing, wheeling and dealing ‘pikey’ stereotypes perpetuated in mainstream films like Guy Ritchie’s London gangster romp Snatch. Photographer turned director Perry Ogden’s cinematic debut adopts a more honest approach to their portrayal and firmly locates the Irish travelling community where they belong in contemporary (Irish) culture - as an established and long standing ethnic group with a rich centuries old tradition and culture.
Today there are over 25,000 travellers living in Ireland (although the community also thrives in the UK and Ireland) but they still exist very much on the fringes of society living in caravans by the sides of roads with little to no facilities or in inclusive communities. Negative representations in the media have led to continued exclusion and discrimination and attempts to assimilate them into '‘settled'’communities.
Ogden, a photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue and Face magazines, became intrigued by the lifestyle and culture of the travellers when he was working on his book ‘Pony Kids’ (1999), a pictorial documentation of the horse culture thriving among the housing estates of Dublin. Gaining access to the Children’s Court in Dublin Ogden observed a number of Traveller kids going through the courts system and it was there he encountered some of the kids who would later feature prominently in Pavee Lackeen. The film grew in part from their personal experiences.
Pavee Lackeen, which incidentally won the Sutherland Award at last years London Film Festival, presents an loosely episodic slice of the travelling lifestyle built around the experiences of a 10 year old girl (Winnie Maughan), living with her single, alcoholic mother and siblings in trailer in an industrialised coastal area of Dublin. Ogden, like fellow photographer turned filmmaker Gus Van Sant in Elephant, adopts a free cinema approach employing the usual tactics: improvisation, hand-held camera and non-intrusive filmmaking techniques, (i.e. following his protagonists and filming them from behind), and a mostly non-professional cast captured in their own surroundings to enhance the film’s inherently realist and observational mode of address. Semi-scripted and shot on mini dv Pavee Lackeen presents a candid and unaffected view of multicultural Ireland in the 21st Century (featuring Asians, Jamaicans and Eastern Europeans who have themselves become assimilated into the local community).
Ogden’s muse Winnie is a tough, streetwise pre-teen with an inquisitive nature. She is always asking questions and touching things – an ideal receptacle for knowledge, echoing the words of the fortune teller who reads her palm in the opening scenes and warns Winnie to work hard at her education: ‘life is like a bank account’. Winnie, however, has a temper and is suspended from her school for fellow travellers for fighting with the other girls. She wants to go to a ‘settled’ school, because ‘travellers know everything about me’, as does her illiterate mother who worries her daughters aren’t learning anything where they are. Ironically, faceless beaurocracy and prejudice seems intent on keeping the girls out of the system. Ogden follows Winnie as she aimlessly passes her days staring through shop windows, sniffing petrol and digging out pennies from a fountain.
Initially an idyllic representation of contemporary Ireland is evoked in friendly exchanges between Winnie’s mum (Rose) and a gent who is selling his caravan. The friendly banter and polite and chatty manners of Rose defy the usual stereotypes of travellers - often portrayed as wily rip-off merchants and con men - and a sense of a utopian co-existence seems to exist amongst the settled and travelling communities. Gradually, this is subtly eroded when the council men who initially seem to be bending over backwards to ‘accommodate’ the Maughan’s, when they are evicted and obliged to move their commune down the road, are revealed to be cowards dishing out empty promises and hiding behind legal loopholes. The Ireland portrayed is an ambivalent one as is Ogden’s response to it. Shot in muted colours and using long takes and little dialogue, Ogden opts out of adopting a moralistic and judgmental tone. He refuses to sentimentalise and take any sort of obvious stand, preferring instead to give a more naturalistic face, warts and all, to a race of sadly misinterpreted people and this is what makes Pavee Lackeen so interesting to watch. A word of warning though – the dialogue may be a little tricky for audiences to decipher due to the heavy localised dialects of the non-actors.
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