The forgotten plight of Irish travellers is a surprise film hit

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Last night, Pavee Lackeen opened in London, a movie whose refusal to shy from the realities of life for Ireland's travellers has won it unexpected critical acclaim around the world.

At the heart of the film, the first by the Dublin-based English photographer, Perry Ogden, is Winnie Maughan, a 10-year-old girl and real-life traveller who lives with her mother in a dilapidated caravan in one of Dublin's most desolate industrial areas.

Giving the film the Satyajit Ray Award at the London Film Festival, judges described the film as "a skilfully dramatised and deeply committed portrayal of the traveller community in Dublin and its struggle with bureaucracy, poverty and prejudice". It has also won acclaim at festivals in Italy and Germany and in Ireland, at Dublin and Galway. One critic said it stood out "for a portrayal of an outcast family through a camera that brings fiction and reality into a new realm of perception".

Winnie herself has been described as a cinematic natural who delivers a remarkable performance at the centre of the Maughan family as it struggles against an often hostile world.

The characters suffer from a mix of problems including bad health, short life expectancy and literacy problems. They are often involved in clashes with authority and, in particular, the police. In short, they have trouble with Irish society, and Irish society has trouble with them. It is a paradox of today's prosperous Ireland that many travellers continue to exist in third-world conditions; another is that recent waves of immigrants have much more successfully integrated into society. In the film, for example, Winnie is seen visiting shops which are operated by non-Irish nationals, reflecting the fact that many in Dublin are now run by people of mainland European and Asian origin.

The film concentrates on the life of the young girl and the scrapes she gets into at school. She is seen visiting her brother, who is in prison for "robbing".

Ogden's interest in the marginalised first led to a book, Pony Kids, picturing inner-city children and their horses.

The film's techniques include the use of a hand-held camera and improvised scenes fleshing out a sparse script to create a blend of fiction and documentary. In some cases, scenes were written in the morning and shot in the afternoon. Ogden said he wanted to depict children at risk in "post-Celtic Tiger Ireland", many of whom had no support from parents who had vanished or were not interested in them.

He had first come across Winnie's brother, but she herself had stood out in the filming so that she went from "just a little kid annoying us all the time" to the principal actor. She still lives with her mother and nine siblingson a site which has no proper running water or toilet facilities.