Breaking Ground's director Michelle Deignan interviewed by Maria-Jose de Esteban from the BFI, October 2013
Breaking Ground does more than just recount the story of the London Irish Women’s Centre from its origins in the 1980s to its closure in 2011. It also contributes to our understanding of radical feminism, national identity and sexual politics during this period. As the film is about to be screened at the Irish Film Festival in London, I asked moving image artist Michelle Deignan to take us through the process of making her first documentary feature.
1-Where did the idea for this project come from? And how did you get involved?
I was asked by artist and film maker Fiona Whitty to exhibit a short film of mine, Red Cheeks, in an exhibition she had organised at the London Irish Women's Centre back in November 2011. In this film an actress reports anecdotes about me as an Irish artist and film maker in London, within the context of a tour of three Irish institutions there, including the London Irish Women's Centre.
After seeing Red Cheeks in this exhibition Claire Barry, the centre's director, asked me if I'd write a proposal to make a documentary on its history. I was really surprised and delighted. It's pretty unusual to be asked to pitch for a documentary on the back of an artwork. I thought what a great opportunity to make a funded film about Irish women in London, a subject that other films of mine had addressed but in completely different ways.
2-Did you have an idea of the story you wanted to tell before starting or did a narrative emerge through the process of making the film? Looking back now at the original proposal I did know the main themes and issues that I wanted to communicate and they remained pretty consistent throughout. I knew that the real content of the story was in the interviews with the women involved. I was clear from the beginning that I didn't want a narrator's voice in the film.
The full facts of what was included in the film emerged slowly through looking at the London Irish Women's Centre's video and paper archive and many, many conversations as well as the film's interviews themselves. Really the research didn't end until we stopped filming, as each interview would reveal a new fact, anecdote or personality that was involved in the organisation. As a consequence a lot of the interviews were very long and in depth. The London Irish Women's Centre existed for 29 years and a lot of people passed through their doors.
But interviews alone do not make a documentary and it's their combination with image sound and music that give the film its atmosphere, emotion and energy. As we were nearing the end of the interview process I decided that the existence of the archive of the London Irish Women's Centre at The London Metropolitan University and my engagement with it had to feature in the film. The documents themselves, what they say, how they are designed and printed, say so much about the times and I think of this archive as a character in the film. Another non vocal character in the film is London itself, so the range and type of shots of both established and alternative views of London over the years were very important.
3-How was the narrative structured?
The narrative structure was worked out in the edit. I edited it alone which was a long and challenging process. Editing yourself does mean you really own the film creatively but I found that maintaining objectivity and a clear overview of what you are doing very difficult with a film of this scale.
4-In the film, original members of the centre recall and reflect on how and why it was created, and you use amateur footage and photographs to illustrate their story. How did you go about gathering research material and where does the film footage come from? The footage and photographs are from a huge number of sources, where do I start!
When the centre was still open it had a cupboard in its library full of U-matic tapes with video documentation of events and a few interviews filmed between 1987/88. Nothing was labelled so we hadn't a clue what on these until Clare Dearnaley, the film's producer, bought a U-matic deck and spent many hours logging them. This was the archive we started with. It gave us some fantastic clips and many of the women we went on to interview are featured in these. The London Irish Women's Centre did a lot of self publishing in the form of reports and newsletters and they astutely had a lot of their events documented by professional photographers. Most of the black and white photographs in the film were taken by Joanne O’ Brien and Sass Tuffin who had both been employed by the London Irish Women's Centre to document events at different times. Colour photographs were from the personal collections of some of the interviewees and others we found in the LIWC archive.
Lots of the family footage shot on Super8 and Standard8 was from Clare the producer's friends and family who are Irish in Britain. I also sourced a small amount of footage showing squatting in London in the 80's from online archives. Lots of the views of London from the 90's until now were from fellow Dubliner and cameraman Mark Carey's archive and the rest were from my own personal archive, shot around London over the fifteen years I've been living here.
I made a great discovery in one of the London Irish Women's Centre's archive boxes of two VHS tapes from 1998 and 1989, filmed by a group of women who were based at LIWC. One of these had footage of the 'Lift the Ban' demonstrations in London, an event organised by the NUJ. This was a protest against the British Broadcasting Ban of 1988 that stopped organisations in Northern Ireland that the government believed supported terrorism from directly broadcasting on British radio or television. Amongst this footage I found a wonderful clip of former Labour MP Clare Short making a speech about the Prevention of Terrorism Act and shots of the Troops Out movement protesting outside Westminster Parliament.
We got some fabulous archive from Anna Liebschners’ short film 'A Free Country' (1983), about the Prevention of Terrorism Act and how if effects the Irish community in the UK .
4-This is your first feature film. Your previous work, such as ‘Assumed Position’ which uses humour to question the idea of authorship and ‘To Camera’ which takes an idiosyncratic look at TV news reporting are experimental shorts-how did you find the transition to making a full length documentary? I primarily make films or moving image installations for gallery exhibition. Most of these works have been smaller in scale in terms of budget, the investment of time and labour, and the audience. That said, I have worked on a lot of broadcast documentaries as an editor in the past so making films for a very broad audience doesn't daunt me. Managing interviewees, locations, crew and commissioners at that intensity over the period of a year was a steep learning curve. There was a lot of communicating going on every day. I had worked with crews, musicians, actors and post production specialists before but this is the first time I had a producer and I never want to be without one ever again! But it all depends on budget. I will definitely work at this or a larger scale in the future as well as doing smaller scale works.
5- In terms of the style of your film, did you have any specific documentaries in mind?
No. However, during the editing process I saw artist Luke Fowler's feature length film 'All Divided Selves'. The intercutting between archive and contemporary footage flows really smoothly and the effect is very consuming. I found it very inspiring. It's a really interesting film portrait about R.D Laing, a psychiatrist whose profession is based on observations, and he puts himself under mass scrutiny through his own media performances.
6-There are some very stylised views of London in the film, how did you get them?
We’ve got some wonderful film footage of the urban cityscape in the 1980s shot by film maker Michael Maziere’s from a tower block in Stoke Newington, where the London Irish Women's Centre was based. And it's from the same perspective that I filmed some of the contemporary London shots, as I live in a building just metres away from the one he filmed from! What a difference in the skyline if you compare the two sets of footage. The City of London is now the dominant architectural force in the skyscraper landscape as there are now so few tower blocks between there and northeast London to compete with it. The contemporary footage of London was almost entirely shot north of the river. I wanted to create shots of the capital's contemporary power bases from the perspective of where the London Irish Women's Centre was based.
7-I noticed that. In fact, the film opens with a magnificent shot of City skyscrapers and ends with the closure of the Irish Women’s London Centre. Do you think there is a link between the concentration of power in the financial centre and the plight of the centres of the people? I'm glad you like the shot! It was filmed from Regent Studios in Hackney, a light industrial building where there are many artist's studios, small fashion labels and galleries. The building is privately owned and the rents are steadily going up as the area around has become increasingly gentrified.
Both the formation and the demise of the London Irish Women's Centre is a complicated story that reflects social and political changes in London, the UK and Ireland, and the film reflects this. London has changed significantly over the past 30 years and the growth in dominance of the financial sector both visibly and economically is undeniable. It is a much more expensive place to live in than it was in the 1980's, which means it's very difficult for people to put creativity, political activism, direct action, charitable work or just having fun higher up on their agenda than making money. This has an impact for sure on all radical, voluntary and charitable organisations in London.
8-Thanks, and good luck with it!
Originally from the Basque Country Maria-Jose de Esteban lives in London, and works for the British Film Institute as an Information Specialist. Michelle Deignan is an Irish artist and Filmmaker who has been based in London since 1998.
You can find out more about Michelle Deignan on her website www.michelledeignan.info
You can purchase tickets to the Riverside Studios' screening of BREAKING GROUND here: RIVERSIDE STUDIOS