Having lived an extraordinary life and coming through times of adversity to help others Christina Noble speaks to Fiona O’Brien about the new film based on her, due for UK release next week
“Obviously they couldn’t have put in everything that happened in my life. No one would want to see that, but I didn’t want them to either,” says Christina Noble in her broad north Dublin tone.
“I wanted people to feel good coming out of the cinema, and to want to help the charity. It’s all about the children.
“People always want to focus on the hard times, my early life. I understand it but I’d rather concentrate on the later stuff, the work, the children, and how we can do more.”
They say to know Christina is to love her, and to meet her is to know her.
The charismatic, fiery, yet compassionate Dubliner who has brought so much to the lives of disadvantaged youths in Vietnam and Mongolia makes an immediate first impression as she embraces her companions and goes off on a tangent about old tales, skincare regimes, and her favourite fish and chip supper.
Christina is a force to be reckoned with however, her colloquial “c’meretilitellyas” are the cue to more insightful comments on her three decades worth of experience in the depths of poverty in Vietnam, and more recently Mongolia.
Born in Ireland into the slums of Dublin on 23 December 1944, Christina experienced a childhood of pain and betrayal.
Her mother raised Christina and her three siblings, while her alcoholic father spent what little money the family had in the pub.
When her mother died when Christina was 10, the children were separated by the state and sent to different orphanages; each child told that their siblings were dead. After numerous attempts to escape, Christina finally made her way back to Dublin where she ended up sleeping rough in a hole she had dug herself in the Phoenix Park.
During this time, Christina was gang raped, became pregnant and had a baby boy who was taken away for adoption against her will.
After discovering the state had lied about the death of her siblings, Christina located her brother in England moved there to live with him after she turned 18.
This is where she met and married her husband and had three children, Helenita, Nicolas and Androula.
Over the next decade she endured domestic abuse, which led to bouts of depression and a nervous breakdown. At this point in her life Christina began to have vivid dreams about the children affected in the Vietnam war, and she began to feel like the children were reaching out to her, calling her to help them.
The dreams changed Christina’s life forever, and, inspired to help them she moved there as a middle-aged woman once her own children were grown.
It’s no surprise then that the real life heroine is now the subject of a feature length film, with a star-studded cast that includes Liam Cunningham, Love/Hate’s Ruth Negga and acclaimed comedienne/actress Deirdre O’Kane, out in UK cinemas in February.
Irish-born writer-director and producer Stephen Bradley got on board and the result is a charming flash-sequence tale which spans the dour 1950’s Dublin of Christina Noble’s childhood, to Birmingham in the late 1960’s where she tried to create a new life, to the culture shock that was Vietnam in 1989.
“I want this film to be huge for reasons that for the first time in my life are not selfish”
It took six months to get official permission to film. Melanie Gore-Grimes, one of the film’s producers believes this was granted because of Christina’s reputation in the country.
“She’s achieved enormous recognition from the government for what she’s done here and I think they wanted to encourage the film.”
When asked about the red tape that tends to block new charitable movements in more recent times, Christina herself says; “The government have always been very good to me there. I think it’s because I’ve been there for years and they know I just want to help. There’s no ulterior motives. It’s almost like a free reign, and I just love coming up with new ideas and ways to help.”
Christina, at the age of 71, is still heavily active in the foundation. She splits her time between her native Dublin and the UK, as well as frequent visits to the orphanages and centres the foundation has set up in Vietnam and Mongolia.
“They call me mama. There’s a beautiful painting that they gave to me on my last visit just before Christmas. It’s like the size of a double window, and it’s of a tree. I’m the trunk and they have all these colours representing nationalities and the people of the world coming out of it. That’s kind of the message summed up, what we’re trying to get at.”
The Christina Noble Foundation has offices in 14 countries, most of which Christina visits each year as she faces the unenviable task of raising half a million American dollars a year just to keep her existing work going.
It was in 1989 that the journey began, as she risked her life every day and night walking the city streets searching for isolated children in need of medical care and protection from economic and sexual exploitation.
Over the next eight years, the foundation was born, which aims to set children up for life, as she believes that childhood is the pathway to a future. So far, the Christina Noble Foundation has set up emergency health clinics, schools, shelters for homeless boys, childcare centres, soccer teams and a vocational hairdressing school and salon. Music and swimming lessons are currently being added to this long list.
Christina still ventures out onto the streets of Vietnam searching for those at the very bottom of the needypile, but she would never drag a child away from their home or family.
She goes to poor communities, promotes the actions of the Foundation and informs people of what she can do for them. Visiting the clinics is a choice.
Although the foundation’s work is clear, the group is still seeking support from the UN and governments around the world. In 1997, Christina expanded CNCF’s operations into Mongolia, where it put in place prison education programmes, healthcare projects, sponsorship schemes for children and revolving loan systems.
To date, the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation has helped an estimated 140,000 children. On February 25, she received an OBE from Prince Charles in Buckingham Palace, an honour she hopes will gain further credibility for her foundation.
Deirdre O’Kane has been living this story for five years. The Irish comedienne first heard about Christina Noble when she read her book Bridge Across My Sorrows but it didn’t occur to her that the story could be made into a film until she met Christina five years ago when hosting The Tooth Fairy Ball for the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation.
“The book is hard going and I didn’t think that people would be able to relate to that kind of hardship happening to one person,” she says.
“Then I met her and the penny dropped: she’s feisty and she’s a fighter but she’s also funny as hell. I’d been looking for a project and I suddenly realised that there was only one person that I wanted to make a film about and that was Christina Noble.”
O’Kane went about acquiring the rights to her books and worked closely with her husband Stephen Bradley on developing the script.
“For the last two years we’ve talked about Christina every single day and slowly, slowly the cogs have fallen into place one by one.
“We’ve talked about it constantly so being on set has just been another step, an extension of that conversation. Stephen knows this film in his head from start to finish, shot by shot.
“He is incredibly meticulous and thorough. He knows what he wants, what he needs.”
O’Kane has read the script countless times, for weeks she had the documentary Mama Tina by Stephen Jeffers playing on her iPod so she woke up to Christina’s voice every morning.And she came out to Vietnam with Christina for a week to spend time with her on the ground.
“We spent 24 hours a day together here and I sat in on meetings that she had with government officials and visited people in the slums with her. I went from one end of her life to the other because she spends time with both government ministers as well as with street kids. She’s a politician as well as everything else.
“My performance cemented in that week. I knew the rhythm of her voice; I knew the changes and intonations. After that week I felt confident that I could bring her to the screen.”
“We have an amazing shorthand on set,” says Bradley.
“Deirdre knows what I’m thinking and can react very fast to that. In Vietnam she’s been in every scene shooting non-stop for four solid weeks, which is something actors rarely get to do. Usually it’s so piecemeal. She understands Christina’s journey very well, instinctively, because she’s been with it for so long.”
“From the moment she puts on her blonde wig, Deirdre becomes this completely different person,” says Gore-Grimes.
“To me she was Christina; she sounded like Christina; she thought like Christina. She was so perfect.”
“My biggest challenge as an actor is serving her story. I want this film to be huge for reasons that for the first time in my life are not selfish. She is a huge person; she has lived this huge life. So for me the challenge is: Can I give it the same energy that she has? Have I got enough in me to serve her story? That’s it.”
And what does Christina think of Deirdre’s depiction of her?
“I think she did a wonderful job, don’t you?”
• Noble opens in UK cinemas on February 12