Interview: director Perry Ogden on Pavee Lackeen

Submitted by Matthew Arnoldi on Sun, 02/12/2006 - 16:00

The Irish film Pavee Lackeen is the first feature from renowned photographer Perry Ogden and is an intimate portrait of a resilient and spirited young traveller girl and her family's day-to-day struggle with poverty, faceless bureaucracy, and prejudice in contemporary Ireland.

Ten year old Winnie (Winnie Maughan) lives with her mother and siblings in a dilapidated trailer on the side of the road in a desolate industrialised area of Dublin. The film was shot on mini-DV with a cast of mostly non-professionals, including many Travelling people. It follows the young protagonist as she struggles with her identity over a period of several weeks.

Director Perry Ogden's photographs have appeared in Italian Vogue, the Face and Arena and he has shot advertising campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Chloe and Calvin Klein. These have supplemented more personal projects including the "Pony Kids" photographs, which were published in 1999 and became the inspiration for Pavee Lacken.

Pavee Lackeen was awarded the Satyajit Ray award at the close of the London Film Festival 2005 and two days later, it won two further Irish Film and TV awards for Best Film and The Breakthrough award for director Perry Ogden. Winnie Maughan had a nomination in the best actress category for her brilliant performance.

Matt Arnoldi: Firstly could you tell us more about the Pony Kids photographs that inspired the film?

Perry Ogden: They were a series of images I captured from a big horse fair held on the first Sunday of every month in Dublin, I would take photographs of the kids and record their views and hopes and so on.

MA: Were you thinking then how you could turn this into a cinematic narrative?

PO: Yes, I decided I'd look at the life of just one of these marginalized kids who has lived on one of these council house estates on the edge of Dublin.

MA: Was that an eye-opener for you in ways you didn't expect?

PO: Yes it was. We ended up in the children's court following the cases of kids who hadn't committed any crime and were there just because they were at risk. As Traveller kids, they'd been found sleeping rough in disused cars, that sort of thing and were in court over a risk to their personal safety. Parents were dead, in prison, with chronic drug or alcohol problems or had left for England. The courts didn't know what to do with them so most just got turned out on the streets again. That became our focus - on a Traveller child about the age of 10, sleeping rough and having to make the best of it. One day we saw this boy in court, held overnight for kicking a policeman's car. On his release, we went to his home and asked if he would mind us focusing on his life in a film. He turned out to be Winnie's brother and his stories merged with ours. Winnie herself later becoming the lead in the film.

MA: Were Winnie and her brother pleased to have their story told?

PO: We developed a bond of trust, particularly with their mother. The kids were excited with the attention but largely went along with it if their mother was happy. Her mother does feel in the telling of their story, that we got it right which is pleasing. For us too, it was important that this mixture of fiction and documentary was authentic. Our script was the bare framework - only 24 pages long - and we would put the kids into a scene and develop the dialogue with them.

MA: The Mike Leigh approach?

PO: Yes it wasn't dissimilar. I liked that improvised approach where we could work on the writing of a scene in the morning and then shoot it in the afternoon. I'm not sure I could start with a 100 page script and stick to it religiously.

MA: How do you feel about the approach of certain tabloid newspapers in spreading a certain 'nimby' mentality amongst the middle classes towards the travelling community?

PO: That's been happening a lot in the UK recently, hasn't it. In Ireland too, the traveller community seem to be being squeezed out, perhaps more heading over to England. In Ireland, they're making it very difficult for people to pull up at the side of the road. I think what we were trying to show in the film, is that social workers and council officials, who have some interaction with the travellers, were well-meaning but not able to tackle issues head-on since they're not empowered to do anything. They talk a great deal about moving forward but not a lot gets done. Even in the courts, issues were addressed but no one was empowered so there was nowhere for the Traveller kids to be put that was safe.

MA: They say "never work with children and animals" - you took on both!

PO: (Laughs) Yes, I think I might not be working with kids on the next one .. when they were good, they were absolutely fantastic. When they were bad, they were really terrible. Sometimes Winnie would run off in the middle of the day and we wouldn't know where she'd gone. So occasionally we'd have to stop filming and call it a day, but shooting in periods of 7 days here and 10 days there, we found Winnie and her friends would drag out the last day in any given period, because they didn't want it to end. This was a whole new life for them, with all the attention, so on last days, you'd be doing take after take, because they'd be deliberately messing it up merely because they didn't want it to stop.

MA: Did you build up a personal relationship with Winnie?

PO: We've become firm friends. Winnie even introduced the film at the London Film Festival last November when I'd got delayed. I was really pleased that she'd waltzed in and been brave enough to take to the microphone and introduce it. That was brilliant.

MA: Did you have a screening for the travelling community before release?

PO: Yes, we showed them a final cut. I knew Winnie was worried about petrol-sniffing scenes in the film and implored me to take them out as she was worried other travellers would think she was a drug addict. So we talked through the whole thing about it being acting and not a depiction of reality and it was sometimes hard for her and them to make that distinction. I guess the way we were shooting didn't help because we were blurring the lines between fiction and documentary, but now of course, the kids are teenagers and saying, "we would never dress like that, Perry made us wear those horrible clothes."

MA: Was it hard to raise the funding for the film ?

PO: Yes it was. I'd made a 10-minute piece to try to raise funding a year before shooting, and not getting any, I realised I'd just have to raise the money myself so with a chunk of money raised from other shoots, I got a rough cut made, although if I'd known what that would cost, I would never have started. Getting to a rough cut, The Irish Film Board were approached. They loved it and came up with completion funding.

MA: What's next?

PO: I haven't worked out what the story is going to be about yet, but I can tell you its going to be set in the Caribbean...

Pavee Lackeen plays across the UK from 17 February