When she was 27, Oonagh Kearney left Ireland to become a filmmaker in London, before coming back a decade later. Since her first short films, she has tirelessly tried to raise awareness on the underrepresentation of women in her native country and in cinema.
Here it is, in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, in a street aptly called “rue des Irlandais” – “Irish street”: the Centre Culturel Irlandais gathers artists in residence, libraries and various activities that are aimed at spreading the Irish culture and creating a community. A temporary home for Oonagh Kearney, an Irish screenwriter and director who spent three months in Paris in order to work on several projects, including one feature film portraying Sophie Germain, a French mathematician who was born at the end of the 19th century, or another project dealing with an American photographer, Francesca Woodman. “I’m interested in portraits of young women like them because I grew up in a culture where they didn’t exist and we didn’t hear about them.”
There is, indeed, not a single work in Oonagh Kearney’s filmography that does not feature a female protagonist. In the documentary Wonder House, a little girl discovers the secrets of science. In the experimental short film Her mother’s daughters, four dancers perform a very poetic choreography. A “natural inclination” for the filmmaker who grew up in Ireland in a “house full of women”, with her mother and three sisters. “It was very normal for me to be around other women. But when I looked at what was going on screens, I always felt that there weren’t any women.”
A deep-rooted patriarchy
Ireland is a country where things have always been quite complicated for women. Contrary to England and France, abortion is still forbidden in Ireland. “We have a deeply rooted patriarchy that is taking time to shift. Ireland, for instance has a very bad history concerning reproductive health,” the film-maker points out. And this will continue to be true at least until the result of the referendum that will take place in late Spring 2018 and that “is going to be a massive event, and a bit of a fight,” Oonagh underlines.
The place that Ireland gives women being something that is very close to Oonagh’s heart she insists on tackling these issues in her art. In her short film The Christening, the protagonist is a teenager having to deal with abortion. So is one of the three women portrayed in one of her future projects called Snow in Beara.
Giving women a voice
Words and realism are not always the strongest way to convey messages. The Irish film director often uses the experimental form to express her ideas in a very poetic way and women in her short films rarely talk. In Her mother’s daughters or The Wake, she manages to give them a voice though, through dance for example. “The imagery you can find sometimes working with dance is stronger than it would in television drama.” Oonagh’s films also try to represent women in a more realistic way than what we are used to seeing on Hollywood screens. “There are stories that haven’t been told from a lot of perspectives, whether it’s women and colour, or stories to do with sexuality… They would interest me because I am tired of getting the same stories being told from the same point of view.”
Fights against the inequality that remains distinct between men and women needs not only to be done in the stories that films tell, it requires battling for equality besides the camera too. Not only does Oonagh want to represent women in her works, but she is also active in defending the place of women in the film industry. Things have started to change slowly, with women’s voices being heard thanks to social media and to new female directors just like Oonagh Kearney. The filmmaking industry does seem to support them more and more – the recent success of Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, is a good example: for the first time, a woman was at the helm of a superhero movie.
Ireland and cinema, the birth of a new culture
But “Ireland does not have the same filmmaking tradition as other European countries. France obviously has a very strong and old tradition, with the Lumière brothers, that goes back to the start of cinema.” Oonagh stresses. Apart from very few examples, including Neil Jordan (Interview with a Vampire, The Borgia), Jim Sheridan (Brother, The Boxer) and Kenneth Branagh – born in Belfast but raised in England – Irish film directors are not much renowned around the world… and they are mostly men.
Being an Irish woman wanting to start a career in cinema thus seemed a difficult dream to achieve, and Oonagh Kearney was not actually destined for filmmaking at first. But after having worked with British director Ken Loach as a casting director for his 2006 film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, she gave up theatre at 27 years old. This “very lucky and happy accident” led her to train as a film director and screenwriter at the National film and television school … in London. At that time, Ireland was facing an economic crisis, which fragilized an already weak filmmaking industry. “When I went to film school, I wanted to go to London because I was more interested in meeting Europeans and being exposed to other cultures.”
The Irish filmmaking industry has however developed recently and is trying to catch up with its neighbours. Film schools are more attractive than they used to be, and Irish films have gained visibility and recognition. In 2016, Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, was nominated in four categories at the Oscars. Its main actress, Brie Larson, received a few awards, including one Oscar and one Golden Globe.
A land of arts
Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Bram Stocker, Samuel Beckett… Ireland may not have an old film culture, but the country has been the cradle of a lot of artists, especially writers and poets. A culture that goes back to Ireland’s oral storytelling tradition. “The seanchai, the storyteller, did something on a metaphorical, symbolic level, that people needed as much as they needed potatoes. That’s why today, if you are an artist [in Ireland], and whether or not you are making money, you can be very well respected.”
That is why Oonagh decided to come back to her native country in 2015, after having stayed in England for 10 years. “I think there is something in me that feels good about moving back to Ireland, connecting with my culture and telling stories that are close to me.” The Irish culture does show through a lot of Oonagh’s films. Her short film Oiche Nollaig na mBan is for example inspired by a poem written in Gaelic by Seán Ó Ríordáin. She is also currently working on an experimental film based on a poem by a Irish female contemporary poet, Doireann Ní Ghríofa.
2015 was indeed a key year for Irish women working in the field of culture. Oonagh’s interpretation of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s poem was very much inspired by a campaign called #Wakingthefeminists which took place from November 2015 to November 2016 in Ireland. When the National Theatre, the Abbey Theatre announced its program, people discovered that only one of the ten plays chosen was written by a woman. “A few people on Twitter complained, and instead of being just a moan that went away, it gathered momentum and it actually led to a huge amount of change.”
Those changes were not restricted to theatre, but also affected cinema. One month later, the Irish Film Board published a six-point gender equality plan, aiming at reaching a 50/50 gender parity in their choices of funding for the next three years. “For me, it was a proof that when women get together to change things, they can succeed!”