Canary Wharf Screen: Oonagh Kearney Interview

Canary Wharf Screen Part II: Her Mother’s Daughters

Our Specially Curated Season for Art of The Underground’s Canary Wharf Screen is now in Phase II: The Present. Each week, we interview one of our filmmakers about their film and their involvement in the programme.

The first filmmaker in our Art On The Underground interview series is Oonagh Kearney, a Bristol-born and Cork raised director who began her writing and directing career as a theatre student before turning her hand to film when she moved to London in 2006. Kearney’s HER MOTHER’S DAUGHTERS (2010, colour, 6’24”) is a short dance film that explores the relationship between mothers, daughters, memory and imagination. The film was funded by RTE, the Irish Arts Council annd Filmbase and has screened at festivals around the world, won seven awards and has twice been broadcast on television.

Our programme manager Elhum Shakerifar interviewed Oonagh about the film and her work as a director.

> How did the idea for this film take shape?

I always say this film had two key influences. The first is my mother and sisters. The second is the photography of Francesca Woodman. In late 2009, as I rang in the New Year away from home, I was struck by a realisation – the person who called me the most was my mum. My mum loves the telephone. Never a bad time to call. This film explores the imagination of the mother figure as she waits for her daughters to call. I come from a family of girls. We grew up stepping on each others’ toes, stealing each others’ clothes, borrowing and lending everything from music and books, to ideas and influences. We shared moments of rebellion, transformation and maturation. We fell out. We got back together. Over and over, we’d kill and save each other. We are in different ways “her mother’s daughter”. Francesca Woodman was an American artist born in the late fifties. Despite her premature death at twenty-two, she created an incredible body of photography. She committed suicide by jumping out a window. The film takes inspiration from both her life and death drives. Her photography explores the formal relationship between architecture and the female body.

> And how did the film itself take shape?

I approached choreographer Cindy Cummings and producer Rachel Lysaght to make an application for the RTE Dance On the Box Scheme in 2010. From there we built our cast and creative team. Finding the house was a vital stage in the pre-production process. We had the chance to rehearse. We shot the film in two days.

> Tell me about how you developed the subject – it’s focused on women’s relationships to each other within a family, to the spaces that they inhabited together…

It began with a reflection on the mother figure and the notion of ‘the empty nest’. How do physical and psychic spaces get reactivated by the human voice? Equally the film celebrates a childhood that was playful and exploratory. My sisters and I made up games. I reckon we spent a lot of time staring at ceilings and carpets, navigating stairwells and hallways. The house was our playground. Objects like mirrors and balloons gave us hours of fun. We challenged our bodies and minds, made up rules, adapted and changed them. I loved playing tricks and making stuff up. In effect we were constantly transforming our living spaces into places for play. As a process, this was often unconscious and instinctual – one of the great things about childhood. But we also fought. There could be tensions, rivalries and hierarchies.

> Why did dance film feel the best medium for telling this story?

What drew me to dance is how, as a medium, it can express both the idiosyncrasies of the individual and the shared language of the group. I was excited by the inheritance of gestures between mothers and daughters as a creative starting point. Cindy Cummings and I talked a lot about how these gestures could echo one another and/or develop into unique expressions of identity – be it the shrug of a shoulder, or the way someone laughs. But as the film is only six minutes there was less time to develop these inter-relations. In the final edit, the mother figure operates simply as a framing device. As she stares out the window, arguably it is the act of remembrance, triggered by the telephone ringing, that enables the daughters to come to life. From then on, they seem to develop autonomously from the mother’s ‘memory field’. I’m interested in how memory works and how to represent it onscreen. How do memories breed memories? A neuroscientist told me that memories don’t exist independently of our ability to remember them. In Her Mothers Daughters, memory can be understood as an imaginative act – constantly reworked, reimagined, literally ‘re-membered’?

 > Can you write about the practical elements of making a dance film – how you work with a choreographer, with the dancers.

This will vary project to project – I’m still developing and learning about this practice. All filmmaking is about communication and the realisation of intentions. Before this there tends to be a period of research and discussion, exploration and experimentation. Some dance films are choreographer-led. Others are director-led. It depends on the idea. Who is leading? Who has the vision? As a writer-director, I write a script. But it’s important to give space to other collaborating artists to interpret and play, to bring their passion and expertise to the project. I love when an artist challenges something. It’s usually for a good reason, based on instinct. Seeing new ideas made physical by dance artists and figuring out how to film this – that’s the core collaboration. But structurally there’s a lot to think about – how to link a moment to a series of moments, place a scene within a sequence, relate the part to the whole. With dance on film, you can actually see the structure emerge. You can feel it. I always plan and I am always surprised. This makes it exciting.

> You’ve recently expanded on the themes explored in this film in a new film in production – The Wake – can you tell us a little more about that?

The Wake grew out of Her Mothers Daughters. It reunites the original cast with Irish artist and performer Olwen Fouéré. We met up, chatted, workshopped ideas and improvised . But really it began with big questions. Where are women today? How do we feel about ourselves, our bodies, our most personal experiences? What about the home? How do we relate to the house? Is it an oppressive or creative space? How can emotional and bodily ‘lived experiences’ exist within a narrative structure? How can movement express complex subjectivities?

The film is currently in the edit. We aim to complete it by September!

> What made you want to become a filmmaker?

Working with Ken Loach on The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Suddenly a world opened up. I saw what filmmaking could be. This immense collaboration. Emotionally, socially and artistically fulfilling. But prior to that I worked in theatre. I guess that’s where it really started. At school we got introduced to playwrights like O’Casey and Shakespeare. Seeing the work on stage brought it to life. Feeling the emotions, witnessing the conflicts, understanding the politics. It was magical and alchemical. I began writing plays but despite being supported and commissioned, I got stuck. I was being drawn more and more to the visual and emotional. When it came my way, film made sense. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

> Birds Eye View is a platform that spotlights women directors – what advice would you give to women starting out in film?

Persevere. Experiment. Listen to your own voice. That’s the most precious thing you have. Ask for help. Get to know how you communicate. Hone this. Attend to your weaknesses. Observe your strengths. Get to know your own charm factor! Do you have one? Is it something you use? How do you operate? Are you smooth? Are you direct? Are you awkward? Are you shy? How do you communicate? People say directors are manipulative. I disagree. I’m demanding and have high expectations of others – including myself. Make a priority list. I’m bad at this! Make mistakes. I’m good at this! Allow others to make mistakes. Mistakes hurt but they help everyone in the long run. If you’re in it for the long run, try things out as much as you can now. Stretch yourself. Take risks. Find a producer who believes in your work, shares your political outlook and personal values. This may take years. Thank people. Film is a collaborative medium. You may be the driving force – and you may feel lonely sometimes – but you are nothing without your team. Be brave. Brace yourself for rejection. Persevere…


Oonagh next to the BEV Art on The Underground Poster:


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