Obituary: Ellie O'Sullivan

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The Independent Culture
LAST FRIDAY afternoon, the body of a lapsed Roman Catholic lay in a Unitarian chapel in Hampstead, north London; hymns sung to traditional British folk tunes echoed around the church, followed by prayers from the Yom Kippur memorial service. This was Ellie O'Sullivan's funeral which, culminating as it later did in a traditional Irish ceilidh, mirrored most poignantly the journey this teacher and documentary film-maker had made in her life.

Denied her own history, father and even mother for much of her childhood, Ellie O'Sullivan would not be denied her own voice in adulthood, as she explored and exploded her story. Her first film, A Place Away (premiered at the Cork Film Festival in 1989), was intended to be a eulogy of her mother, Lean. Instead a complex picture emerged of Catholic guilt and Lean's fierce determination to survive and create her own family, hidden though it might be from her relatives.

Ellie and her older sister Bridget were the illegitimate daughters of Lean O'Sullivan, a domestic servant in Co Kerry, and her married employer. Both sisters were born in Dublin, but when Ellie was two, in 1949, Lean left for London, taking them with her, in an attempt to start a new life. The girls were sent to a Catholic boarding school from this young age and never specifically told of their mother's situation, left rather to infer what they could. Learning of her illegitimacy only at the age of 16, Ellie had lived the paradox of a denied existence in Ireland, yet being fiercely loved by both her sister, an almost absent mother, and a large cluster of expatriate Irish aunts.

It was in such paradoxes that Ellie O'Sullivan centred not only her films, but also her teachings, focusing on the voice of the individual, and the intrinsic right to one's own story. Her second film, A Family Album, exempiflies this philosophy. Using interviews with members of Ellie and her sister's families, juxtaposed with family photos representing their public personas, the mood becomes one of intimacy and intensity, where blame is not apportioned, nor answers provided, but a montage of family life celebrated simply by virtue of its existence and expression. This film was also shown at the Cork Film Festival and went on to many other festivals before being transmitted by Channel 4 in 1992.

Ellie left school at 16, and followed in her sister's footsteps as an au pair abroad, returning to London in 1970, where she gave birth to Charlotte, her only child. The creation of a new family life brought O'Sullivan further meaning and direction. She worked as a volunteer for the charity Task Force, where she met her future husband, Peter Benjamin, took a degree in History at London University and a teaching certificate at the Institute of Education, and went on to teach English at Mary Boon Comprehensive in Fulham.

It was here that her own extraordinarily "voiceless" childhood gave her the empathy necessary to understand and encourage the voices of others. It was also during this time in her life that she first contracted the breast cancer she was to fight for the next 18 years. O'Sullivan gave up formal teaching and an MA in film studies to concentrate her energies solely on making films, begging to become a member of the Clapham and Battersea Film Workshop when she found it was over-subscribed. Here she made her first film.

Ellie O'Sullivan's last two films, Who Do I Love the Most? and Five Degrees of Absence, are in many ways the culmination of her love of and fight for the unheard child's story. In the former, broadcast on BBC2 in 1996, she asked adult siblings to express their rivalry and respect for one another. In the latter film, as yet unshown (being completed hours before she died), the stakes were raised even further, as only Ellie dared, with daughters expressing their complex and often unrequited love for their fathers.

Ellie O'Sullivan was someone who looked for and therefore found the meaning in everything, be it an episode of EastEnders or the death of a friend. In doing so, she found in all whom she met an intrinsic value that she could not then exclude, which is why her funeral was one beautiful, multifarious voice.

Ellie O'Sullivan had something that has become increasingly rare in our world - a quiet but steely integrity which ensured that she pursued her artistic goals, and her vision, regardless of corporations, finance or the many other constraints upon the individual voice, writes Peter Symes. As a result, she was able to establish herself as a clear and individual artist, with work that is quite distinctive. Certainly her film for the BBC2 series Picture This, for which I was commissioning editor, was both a little masterpiece and one that was utterly unique.

We desperately need the Ellies of this world, and, while we mourn her passing, we should also salute her courage and her artistry, which I hope will encourage and enlighten those who come after her.

Eileen (Ellie) Veronica O'Sullivan, teacher and film-maker: born Dublin 15 May 1947; (one daughter), married 1985 Peter Benjamin; died London 18 November 1999.