The first Irish language film to be made and produced in Northern Ireland is released today. Áine Toner spoke with its writer Aislinn Clarke
Doineann, meaning ‘stormy weather’ in Irish is the feature debut from Damian McCann and written by local writer and director Aislinn Clarke and was produced by Belfast production house DoubleBand Films.
It tells the story of Siobhan (Clare Monnelly), who disappears with her baby son Oisin on a remote Irish island. Her husband Tomas (Peter Coonan) has made many enemies as a television producer, displeasing many within Dublin’s criminal underworld.
The young family have kept themselves to themselves, avoiding interaction with the islanders.
Tomas, though unwilling, must put his trust in the island’s retired policewoman Labhaoise (Brid Brennan) to locate his family before a storm arrives.
“It is an incredibly proud moment to have produced Northern Ireland’s first Irish language feature film and have Gaeilge be spoken on the big screen. We think the audiences will be thrilled and excited too,” said Damian ahead of Doineann’s release.
Aislinn describes the pair meeting to discuss the project, starting with a blank page but knowing the film would be made in Irish.
“We’re both of the opinion that it should just be there as a natural part of the world,” she says.
“It’s not something that you need to make some big excuse for or foreground in any other way.
“And in the same way that over the past number of years, I think people have got very used to watching Scandi noir, things like Asian horror have gotten really big audiences over the last 15 years.
“We are aware that what audiences want primarily is a really good story. Genre audiences in particular will follow a good story, they don’t mind reading subtitles.
“I think there was a myth back in the day that people don’t want to read subtitles, but I think actually we’ve been shown that people are quite happy to read subtitles if it’s a good story.
“We just wanted to give Irish language that chance to be enjoyed by anybody and for the foreground to be the story and the language is simply incidental. That’s their language.
“People think there aren’t real people who actually speak this language and have spoken it their whole lives and they speak it on a daily basis. It’s not a theme park you go to and speak a language.”
Linked to language, the setting on a Gaeltacht island “came before almost anything else,” she says of the thriller.
“It was always going to be a thriller, because that’s what Damian and I both have in common, that we really love thrillers. It seemed natural to keep contained and to set in a contained community.”
In fact, the writer and director wanted the location to be “really upfront and centre” in the eyes of viewers.
“I’m a director as well so I’m a very visual person. I’m seeing pictures when I’m writing,” says Aislinn.
“I’ve always wanted the landscape of this to be really upfront and centre, to be almost like, and people say this a lot, but like a character.
“For it to have a texture, a tone, a feeling and a mood that people take away with them even after they’ve finished watching the film.
“I think the Irish landscape has so often been presented as pretty and soft. And I think actually, there’s another kind of Irish landscape that’s moody and dark and dangerous. That’s the landscape that I wanted to show with this film.”
Both director and writer had similar serendipitous views, it seems, as Aislinn recounts when Damian, while location scouting, sent photos of the area now used in Doineann.
“I was really shocked because this was almost literally… I felt like a psychic medium or something, it was bizarre!” she laughs.
“It was literally the house that I had in my head; it was so close. It was really surprising, but I think it’s a really important element of the film.”
While the budget was relatively small, the film’s plot and content remains tense and mysterious, something thriller lovers will thoroughly enjoy.
“You don’t keep the story small; the story can still be thrilling and rich and all of that, but you are aware of certain things are going to be more costly,” Aislinn says.
Since the film’s world premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh earlier this year it has gone on to screen at Newport Beach Film Festival in California, the Foyle Film Festival and the Belfast Film Festival where star Brid Brennan was presented with the Realta Award for Outstanding Contribution to Cinema.
Aislinn is quick to praise the cast for their talent and commitment to the film, saying of Brid Brennan — who TV lovers are currently watching in BBC NI drama Hope Street — “I couldn’t have wished for someone better to play that role.”
“I couldn’t have invented her from the ground up myself to play that role,” continues Aislinn.
“She was just a dream, the absolute perfect person to play that part. And I’m so glad that she took it and that she did it because she got it completely.
“The role and one of the main things that interested me about the story really, I guess it’s kind of about gender but also about ageing.
“In the film, she plays an older woman who used to be and kind of still is a sort of de facto police presence on the island.
“But because she’s a woman and because she’s older, she’s not treated respectfully by this guy who thinks, ‘Who the hell is this one?’
“There’s the assumption that women, especially as they get older, are less capable, less competent.
“And he’s actually digging his own grave because she’s an extremely smart, capable person and she knows exactly what she’s doing.”
Tomas underestimates Labhaoise and that proves to be her strength and his Achilles heel.
“Brid really got that, I think that’s what she liked about the role when she first read it, that this character was surprising. She wasn’t just somebody’s grandmother,” says Aislinn.
“I think there’s such a dearth of meaty roles for women, particularly as they get older, that’s it’s just a gift have something that has layers to it and where someone is a full three-dimensional human being, and not just a woman who exists in the service of others or just like a doddery old woman which is often how they’re presented.
“That was really important with me, I really wanted to explore assumptions about gender and age. Brid really responded to that, and she brought so much to it, she was absolutely fantastic.”
Aislinn says Peter did a brilliant job on his ‘layered’ character.
“He’s not a good guy but he’s not an out and out villain the whole way through either, he’s quite complex.
“And again, his defining trait is this attempt to be uber masculine to fill this masculine role, which is actually, in his interpretation of masculinity, really destructive to himself and to his family.
“Peter did such a marvellous job with that, really quite sinister in the right times and had just the right level of simmer.”
Of his counterpart, Aislinn praises Clare for her portrayal of Siobhan.
“Her character has a big change. This character when you first see her, you think you’ve seen her before. But partway through the film, she flips completely.
“Again, that was really satisfying for me to write.
“It was just the expectation that people have when they watch the film and think, this is this type of character, but that actually flips entirely, and it’s not what you thought it was at all. This is someone else entirely.”
That’s what audiences love, we say, to never fully know whether we entirely like or dislike a character.
“I lecture in Queens, and I always say to my students, there is no such thing as normal people,” says Aislinn.
“They don’t exist. Once you get to know someone, everybody is strange and weird in their own little ways.
“That’s what I tried to reflect in my writing. Just remember that there aren’t any normal people, give everybody their quirks, give everybody their twists and turns.”
Speaking of twists and turns, they’re what we expect — and enjoy — within a thriller and are something Aislinn calls “pretty crucial” to the genre.
“Especially these days; people have seen so much content, thrillers, TV shows, they read true crime and thriller novels. There’s so much out there and audiences are really smart.
“One thing that particularly when it comes to thrillers, and we all do it, I do it myself, we sit there and try to work out what’s happening here, and it’s part of the pleasure of it.
“You say to your husband or your friend or whatever, ‘oh, I know what’s happened and he’s going to do that, or he’s been doing this’ and that’s the pleasure but isn’t it? So, you always have to stay one step ahead [of the audience].
“The audience don’t actually want to work it out. It’s a bit of a downer if you have worked it out. So if you say to your friend, ‘I know what’s happening here,’ and it turns out you’re right, you’re sort of happy because you got it right but you’re also disappointed. What you really like is that, at the end it’s something else entirely that you didn’t think of. That’s the most pleasurable experience.
“It’s really difficult, I think it’s probably one of the most difficult things to write. It gets harder all the time because audiences get smarter. They’ve seen it all before, so you have to keep one step ahead. Know what they’re predicting and what they’re thinking and try to outstep them. That’s the job.”
It may be the job, and one she loves, but it isn’t without its difficulties, Aislinn continues.
“Writing is really hard. Even though you love to do it and it’s the thing you live to do but it’s really difficult. There are times when it’s great, when you take the dog on a walk and solve some problems, and you go yes, that’s what it is. And then you can go home, and you can write many pages in one go. You have days like that.
“But a lot of it is just frustration, procrastinating, beating yourself up, thinking you can’t work it out.
“It’s good and bad; like all good things it has its murky bits that are difficult and then it pays off with the ‘yes’ moments that make it all worth it.”
Doineann is released today in selected cinemas across Northern Ireland