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Ghosts of the Future

Joe Lawlor, one half of film making team Desperate Optimists, spoke to David Hennessy about their new film, The Future Tense which ponders themes like Brexit, home and mental health.

The Future Tense is unlike any other film you have seen.

It comes from Desperate Optimists, which is made up of husband and wife team Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, the film makers behind dramas like Mister John, Further Beyond and Rose Plays Julie- all of which starred Aidan Gillen. Other actors to have featured in their work include Denise Gough and Orla Brady.

But the pandemic saw Joe and Christine making a very different film.

The Future Tense, which screens at the Riverside in Hammersmith this weekend as part of Irish Film London’s St Brigid’s festival, is a documentary that looks at the meaning of home in a poignant way.

In the wake of Brexit, the couple travelled to Ireland to search for locations for a film about Rose Dugdale, the English woman who rebelled against her wealthy family to join the IRA, they were also thinking about moving back to Ireland. Christine wonders aloud at one point if they could kill the two birds with one stone ie find a location and a home in one.

What follows is a personal story that takes in the history of Joe’s family including his mother’s breakdown and recollections of that.

It also ponders the complex relationship between Ireland and England.

Had it not been for Covid, it is unlikely the film- at least as it is- would have been made.

Joe makes it clear at one point that Joe and Christine speaking to camera was never their intention, they would have used actors to stand in for them so in actual fact, they are standing in for the actors it wasn’t possible to have.

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But it is not 90 minutes of talking heads.

The film frequently throws to other subjects for a quick word or just an image. These include dancers that come up in the discussion, members of Joe’s family or the author Kevin Barrie to keep the film moving at pace but always with a stream of consciousness feel with time out taken for digressions and changes of gear.

Joe Lawlor told The Irish World: “The film came out of unresolved business from a previous documentary we did called Further Beyond where the story of my mother kind of began.

“We felt there was more to be investigated.

“In our minds, we see them as part one and part two but in reality, they’re quite a standalone and separate.

“Brexit was there at the beginning and then it was the pandemic after that but certainly the impetus was a certain anger at how the UK was changing for the worse and a kind of a shock at what the country was doing to itself, and what it was voting for.

“We were looking at ourselves in a country that we felt was changing.

“If you don’t like aspects of the broader culture of society around you, you have to do something about that and you have to articulate your opinion about that.

“The worst thing is to really just be silent and passively get on with things.

“I think our starting point came from a reaction to the seismic shift in the political landscape and how we felt it affected us on lots of different levels.

“Of course, the film never mentions the word Brexit, but it’s there.

“It’s there in the atmosphere, in the tone.

“You’re hearing more frequently people talking about, ‘Well actually, this hasn’t worked out the way in which we were led to believe’.

“And of course, we would have argued that it was pretty obvious that this wasn’t going to work out the way you were led to believe.

“And if you were to say that that sounds patronising because they said, ‘We know exactly what we’re voting for’.

“And now you’re hearing that refrain that ‘we weren’t given all the facts’.”

In their interview with the Irish World not so long ago, The Proclaimers used the analogy that Britain is now a past it old lady with her dentures out and thus not looking very appealing.

Joe may have bettered them with a more colourful analogy.

Speaking to two experimental dancers about their choice of union jack underwear, Gary and Greg explain that this choice worked better than the St George flag that could just look like a bleeding anus. Joe wonders if that is actually an analogy for Britain, just a bleeding anus.

The dancers have nothing to say in response.

Joe also wonders at another part of the film if Britain could be described as ‘a nuthouse’.

We’re sure many would agree with that one.

The Future Tense is ultimately asking the question of how Joe and Chrstine feel about the country they have raised a daughter in post- Brexit.

“In the last six years, it has become absolutely insane and it continues to be.

“The standards by which the country has been run, and what the expectations of politicians and what they’re in this game for, it’s truly jaw dropping, and it gets even more and more jaw dropping.”

Speaking ahead of Nadhim Zahawi’s dismissal at the weekend, Joe said: “I don’t recall it ever being quite this crazy: That somebody who was an ex- Chancellor, who’s the chairperson of the Tory party is getting investigated for tax avoidance, and so you can think, ‘Oh my god, does anyone really care?’

“Or are we going to see how much it has affected people’s judgement the next time the election takes place?

“Because the country is very conservative and normally votes conservative.

“Labour has hardly ever been in power. It’s just the bar is much higher for them to get into power. Whereas naturally, the bar is set much lower for conservatives.

“But if Labour were embroiled in some of all the shenanigans, they’d be out long ago, but the country is so quick to forgive all of the stuff that’s going on, and there’s so much delusion now by people who did vote for Brexit, and so much denial that despite the fact that this has manifestly not done what you wanted it to do, I kind of feel that there’s this doubling down effect.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the Conservatives got in in the next election equally and that will be just another example of the nuthouse.

“I am worried about where it’s all going to go.

“I mean it’s a shocker and every week, almost every day, it just makes me go, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’

“It’s like public standards and public life are at an all-time low and Rishi Sunak has come into power on a manifesto to change the standards. But we have seen no evidence of that at all.

“So it is a bit of a shocker.

“And then the growing intolerance: It’s very, very unpleasant.

“Lots of people tried to defend Jeremy Clarkson and the horribleness that he meted out on Harry and Megan.

“A number of years ago, he punched Piers Morgan and there was a bit of a blowback on Clarkson.

“And he said, in his defence, he punched Piers Morgan because Piers Morgan said something offensive about his wife.

“Well, here is you saying something highly offensive about somebody, but you don’t seem to have a problem with it when you found it so insulting and so offensive that you punch somebody?

“So what’s happening to our moral threshold?

“Brexit really was the act of lunacy and so consequently, the word ‘nuthouse’ which I kind of use very life light heartedly in the documentary, but I do mean it, it’s not good.

“It’s really not good at all and so I really feel something major positively has to happen at the next election, and then a complete reversal of direction. That’s my hope. Maybe then if the Conservatives get in maybe then I’ll think, ‘Okay, this really is crazy’.

“But I feel the country is so gaslit right now, it doesn’t know which way it’s going and will- just like a beaten animal- just revert back to old habits, which means it’ll just vote the normal way which would be shocking.

“Do I have hope? I don’t know in terms of the direction of the country so therefore, we have to find our way through this one way or the other, that I’m hopeful of: People’s ability to keep fighting, keep talking, keep reacting, keep creating. That I’m hopeful about.

“But on the bigger level, I’m more fearful than hopeful.”

It is speaking about his mother’s breakdown that Joe brings the word nut house in, wondering if the country is one big ‘nuthouse’.

What was it like to share details about your mother’s struggle? Was that difficult or was it even cathartic? “I can’t remember it being particularly cathartic.

“The catharsis is through the process of writing and finding the visual material or getting access to her files.

“I know it’s a very common piece of history because there was so many other people in so many other institutions as well and mental health is still obviously a big issue.

“I guess we kind of wanted to engage in that personally but because I’ve been talking about this so much for decades, it’s not like the documentary was a moment where I was going to have a cathartic moment because I’ve been having those moments for decades, and seizing those moments and looking for those moments.

“It was something I wanted to talk about and not stay silent about.

Joe’s parents on their wedding day.

“It felt like an important thing.”

There are themes you keep returning to in your work such as parentage and what we inherit from previous generations…

“Another big theme is identity: About who we are and how we become who we are, and how we can change, how we become one thing but could easily become a different thing depending on the circumstances that you’re born into, or depending on things that happen to you, and how you react to those things.

“I guess that question of how unstable we potentially are, not just as a society or ecologically but also how unstable human beings can be and how we aren’t these inanimate rocks, we actually can change and can mutate in both positive and negative directions, depending on the situations and pressures that people are put on her.

“It’s a very, very complicated, soft machine that we are, and so but are prone to being affected by the world around us.

“It has been a preoccupation of ours for a very long time.”

The Future Tense includes some Irish language and reflections on it.

Obviously filmed long before An Cailín Ciúin was honoured with its Oscar nomination last week, Joe was delighted to see Ireland honoured with so many nominations.

“It’s fantastic news.

“We’ve worked with Carrie Crowley. She’s fantastic so I think we’re particularly proud of her work and the whole team.

“It (the language)’s something that we’ve had a blind side to and that sense that we articulate in the film that we somehow are missing a trick.

“Now we see with the success of this foreign language idea/ picture, it’s fantastic in a way.

“It kind of begs the question. Why has that taken so long?

“I suppose you could ponder that but I guess the point is, it’s changing.

“It’s now happening and I’m imagining that this will be a profound game changing experience and for the future of Irish film and the Irish language.

“It’s just a thing that has been not been allowed to flourish and it’s been held back or criticised or done wrong.

“So it’s a tremendous thing and I think this will have a big, big impact.

“I mean, I’m hoping that people don’t get used to this Oscar success and think it’s going to happen every year.

“It won’t, because it ebbs and flows.

“But also, I think it’s not something that should necessarily be held on to as the only benchmark of success, there are lots of metrics by way in which success are measured.

“I hope it makes people feel proud and feel that it’s worthwhile contributing to the arts, that it can bring a lot to the country.

“That would be always a big worry: That the arts get less and less support. And that certainly is the case over here (the UK), it’s held with certain scepticism.

“I don’t detect that in Ireland, and certainly not with film.

“And I do think it’s in very, very good shape and it’s going from strength to strength.

“I mean, it employs over three and a half million people, the creative industries in the UK, which is more than many big industries all put together.

“And similarly with Ireland, this really matters and creative industries really do matter. It’s an employer, it speaks to a global audience and I’m very excited about the potential and the future of that.

“What I always want to see though is more diversity, that we don’t jump on a bandwagon and think, ‘Well, now, we’re only going to support Irish language films that are about children who are struggling at home, and going to much nicer parents’.

“So as long as the stories are diverse and we keep supporting a broad range of voices, then I think that’s the that’s the way forward and that’s the way in which an Irish film culture is successful.”

Joe is looking forward to seeing how the film connects with the Irish Film London audience, before screening at the Dublin Film Festival on 1 March. It will then get a release in UK and Ireland cinemas before going to the MUBI platform.

“We’re both looking forward to sharing the film with an audience as ever and I’m very curious, I’m curious to see how it plays to an audience, an Irish audience as well, that will come along and see, does it resonate? And what level and might resonate with people and the conversations that will come out of it afterwards? I’m very curious and hope that, as always, it is an interesting and a positive experience for people and they’re keen to discuss it.”

The Future Tense screens at Riverside Studios on Friday 3 February at 8.15pm. The screening will be followed by a Q and A with film makers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy.

Irish Film London’s St Brigid’s Day Festival runs 3- 5 February.

For more information, click here.

For more information on St Brigid’s Day celebrations, click here. 

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