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Profit before people

Writer/ director Frank Berry told David Hennessy about his film Aisha which looks at Ireland’s inhumane system of direct provision which keeps asylum seekers in detention often for years.

Frank Berry is a social issue film maker. His last film Michael Inside looked at the prison system and his latest film Aisha takes an unflinching look at Ireland’s inhumane system of direct provision.

Direct provision is a system that sees asylum seekers almost kept as prisoners in detention centres often with rights to work, no means to provide for their families or even cook for themselves.

What is worse is their time there can often be years before their case is even heard making it a kind of purgatory for those who have already escaped war or oppression or other trauma to come to Ireland seeking protection.

Many have called for it to end.

Some have even likened it to a modern day Magdalene Laundries in that these centres are all over Ireland and, much like the laundries, they deny those unlucky enough to be sent there, their human rights.

Aisha stars Letitia Wright of Black Panther in the title role, an asylum seeker from Nigeria who had to leave her homeland after seeing her father and brother killed in front of her.

Living in a centre in Dublin, Aisha is separated from her mother but works in a beauty salon to send as much money home as she can. Both her and her mother hope to be together again.

Aisha does not even have the right to microwave some food for herself. Having bought halal meat especially, it is taken away from her but new security guard Conor, played by Josh O’Connor from The Crown, takes pity and shows her some kindness.

Conor knows what it is like to be a prisoner and a friendship grows between the two.

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Aisha will open the upcoming Irish Film London Festival which writer/ director Frank Berry describes as a ‘real honour’.

Frank told The Irish World: “I think people know about direct provision now, more so than before I started the film. There was a lot less knowledge about it.

“I think most Irish people obviously wouldn’t agree with direct provision.

“There’s been a really powerful campaign over the last few years to dismantle the system.

“And that’s through journalists, activists, writers, artists, citizens, everybody has objected to direct provision and put pressure on the government.

“And now obviously there’s a commitment to completely dismantle the system, and replace it with a system more mindful of human rights which has been welcomed.”

Ireland has pledged to end the practice by 2024 but these goalposts seem to have shifted.

“There’s obviously other problems now.

“The 2024 deadline that the government initially pledged is now no longer going to happen.

“I think it’s a big, big problem now in terms of the housing crisis and the capability of the government to accommodate people seeking protection.

“It needs a lot of attention and it’s urgent.”

Frank told us that he had to make a film about direct provision and it came from his research for his previous film, Michael Inside.

“My last film was about the Irish prison system, so while I was researching that, I learned that the prison system and the immigration system was being run by the same government department, the department of justice.

“And I just wanted to know more about the experiences of people coming to Ireland seeking protection.

“I just became interested in it.

“When I’m making films sometimes a subject comes along and won’t let me go really. I just go on a journey and I want to know more.

“I made contact with one of the founders of Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland and he introduced me to more people.

“The idea was really just to listen, to listen to people’s experiences and to make the film collaboratively.

“I just made really good friends and went on a journey for about five years and a lot of people that I worked with over the years ended up being in the film as extras and it was very collaborative.”

The film has that authentic feel of something created in consultation with the community it represents.

Characters in the film speak about not being able to give their children something like an ice lolly for lack of the freezer to keep it in.

“The idea is to spend a long time listening to people’s experiences and to reflect those in a film that’s true and that reflects those experiences so I try and get as close to reality as I can, because the closer we are to reality, the more we can discuss the issues.

“And I feel like if we get things wrong or if the realism is not there in the filmmaking, then it undermines our aim.

“So a lot of what is in the film is a distillation of those conversations and that time spent with people who’ve been through the system just to put something up on the screen that will be purposeful and that we can discuss.”

Someone says in the film that having tortured in their own country, they have been re-traumatised by the system.

“That was something that came up a lot, how a system that is very difficult to live in and has a lot of barriers and a lot of rules can be very, very painful and can actually retraumatise people.

“That came up a lot, how the experience of living in direct provision for a person who is traumatised by the experiences that they’re leaving- They should be greeted with compassion really and care and with human rights in mind.

“But the direct provision system is a profit system.

“Currently as it stands and certainly as it was when I was researching the film, it was far from what it should be and it was very painful for people.

“When you’re researching over a long period of time, and you’re meeting lots of different people and they say the same thing about the pain of waiting and about the lack of dignity, and all those things, the story just emerges for you.

“It’s not like you have to find a story, the story starts to appear.”

Was it hard to hear of people’s awful experiences with the system? “Yeah, it’s very painful.

“The approach to the film is collaborative.

“So you know that phrase, ‘nothing about us without us’. The people I was working with were involved from the very beginning in terms of the development of the story.

“We would read the story out loud and then go back and change it and redraft it right up until the edit. Even in the edit suite, I held a screening for whoever could make it to the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin and people came to it and we watched it and I asked, ‘What should I change?’

“And they said, ‘Don’t change anything’ or, ‘Don’t change much’, which I thought was encouraging.

“But the idea was to include and to be collaborative, right through until the very end.”

The film depicts Aisha being prepared by her solicitor, played by Lorcan Cranitch, to tell the horrible story of why she had to leave her homeland and to give as much detail as possible.

It is striking how a person’s storytelling ability affects their application and also how it is no way to treat victims- Asking them to prove they are victims with a convincing enough ‘story’.

“That came up a lot which was the pain of having to retell your experiences.

“I don’t know if you remember the scene when Aisha is talking to her solicitor and she says, ‘I’ve written it down’.

“He says, ‘I need you to say it again for me now’.

“He was prepping her obviously for the interview but she has to go through it again and then we see her walking down the street and going back to the centre deeply affected by that.

“It has an aggregate effect, it takes a toll on you.

“The whole process is so long and it’s just very painful in so many ways.”

Conor, played by Josh O’Connor, gives a way into the story as we see him seeing things for the first time as he starts his new job.

He shows Aisha some kindness and they quickly become friends. He has spent some time in jail and been abused. This is perhaps why he can’t watch such abuses.

“The idea was that everything I was researching, and everything I was hearing over the years was so difficult and so tough, and the premise that came up through the conversations was that we would tell a story that was about human connection.

“If somebody can be moved quite quickly from one part of the country to the next without any regard for their relationships or their wellbeing and the community that exists in the place that they’re in, that’s kind of gut wrenching and it’s really hard for people.

“So we thought, ‘Well, let’s tell a story, a very human story about human connection between two people and see how the system effects that very basic relationship’.

“Because the film started out really from the development of my last film in terms of research, Conor came from that process really.

“He was inspired by a lot of the men that I met when I was researching Michael Inside which were people in an education environment who’ve been through the prison system and who are trying, who are hurt but are in a positive space and trying to get back to a path.

“So that’s where he came from.

“And Josh really connected with that theme and he gives a brilliant performance in the film.”

The Irish World has to agree with that, both actors are excellent.

What were Letitia and Josh like to work with? “They were amazing, really amazing to work with.

“They’re just incredibly committed, hardworking, and just really, really talented.

“You know, it’s amazing to sit in front of acting of that calibre and see really talented people do their thing.

“I try not to direct them too much on set in terms of imposing direction on them, telling them what to do.

“What I try and do is talk a lot early about what we’re doing with the film about what the scenes are doing.

“And we talk about life and we prep and bond early so there’s a real sense of shared conviction among myself and all the cast.

“That goes to our wonderful supporting cast as well, Stuart Graham, Lorcan Cranitch, Ruth McCabe and many others.

“When we’re on set, everyone knows what they’re doing really.

“In terms of Josh and Letitia, I saw my role as just being supportive and just watching the relationship between them bloom really.”

Letitia is excellent as Aisha as she shows a lot just through facial expression.

“That’s true. That’s very, very true.

“She expressed so much without words.

“It’s a beautiful performance.”

We see little of Aisha outside of the centres but we do see her working in a beauty salon being spoken to somewhat condescendingly by patrons, one who tells her she is ‘lucky’ to be working at all.

There is a part of the film when a car rolls up with three young men inside as Aisha waits for a bus. They taunt her and want her to speak and get in the car to ‘earn some money’.

“There was so much that came up in the conversations and in my research, I absorb it all.

“When you listen and people share their experiences, what I try and do is not ask questions too much.

“I just let people speak and then as the story comes together, really important things stay with you and find their way into the story in different places.

“There’s a lot that is not in the film.”

Some have likened direct provision to the Magdalene Laundries. Perhaps in years to come it will be another part of Ireland’s shameful past.

“Well, the last Laundry, I think, closed in 1995 and the first direct provision centre opened in 1999.

“People talk about those institutions in the past but the direct provision system is the continuation. And it’s still happening in our presence.

“And the denial of human rights is done for profit as well.”

Aisha has already had a couple of screenings outside Ireland and opened discussions about the immigration systems in other countries.

Frank hopes the film can continue to open a discussion about direct provision in Ireland.

“We went to Tribeca in the US and we went to London Film Festival and the conversations are really about immigration systems in general.

“Sadly, I don’t think Ireland is on its own.

“I think immigration systems throughout the world have similar problems.

“I think what I would like with this film certainly in Ireland is for this film to create a space for more discussion, for people to watch it and feel something.

“I think storytelling and filmmaking is very powerful and I think if people can feel when they watch something, they’re less likely to forget.

“I hope the film does that.

“Essentially the film is about human connection.

“It’s universal in that respect.

“It’s also about being a cog in a system that is oppressive.

“I think those themes connect very strongly with audiences internationally and they did raise questions about the immigration systems in their own countries.”

Aisha is the opening film of Irish Film London Festival at Vue West End on Wednesday 16 November.

Irish Film London Festival runs 16- 20 November. For information about the full programme, click here.

For more information, click here.

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