Aislinn Clarke on Found Footage, Belfast and THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas interviews (Exclusive)

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Released in the United States through IFC Films in mid-2018, Aislinn Clarke’s feature film debut The Devil’s Doorway is an extraordinary accomplishment for a number of reasons. The first feature-length horror movie directed by a woman in Northern Ireland, it is also one of the very rare feature-length found footage horror films directed by a woman. A lecturer at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast, Clarke’s prowess as an academic researcher granted her unique insight into how to most effectively unite the thrills and pleasures of the horror genre with what lies at the heart of the project: a passionate and intelligent interrogation of a very real and profoundly dark element of her country’s history and its mistreatment of women.

Set in 1960, The Devil’s Doorway tells the story of two priests who take their analogue audio-visual equipment to a Magdalene Laundry in Ireland to investigate a possible miracle. What they discover is far more profane, setting the scene for a genre film that shrewdly intersects the very real horrors of these real-life asylums where the Catholic church housed young women deemed to be morally dubious in character, particularly in regard to their sexuality (hence the reference to Mary Magdalene). Sex workers, unmarried pregnant women and women suffering mental health issues were all institutionalized in these homes, first established in Dublin in 1765.

Played by Lalor Roddy and Ciaran Flynn, as genre codes and conventions often dictate these priests discover far more than they bargained for when their investigation begins to reveal the shocking secrets that lay hidden in the Laundry they are investigating, both worldly and – as they ultimately discover – of a far more supernatural nature.

Aislinn talk to Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in depth about her impressive film, it’s history and development, and the role of women in horror filmmaking more broadly.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: I’d like to start by asking about how the Magdalene laundries ‘fit’ in your experience of growing up as a woman in Ireland. I confess for me in in Australia The Devil’s Doorway was really the first I’d heard of them – although I certainly had heard of other variations – but I’m fascinated to hear about your research process and how that intersected with their wider notoriety or what was perhaps common knowledge?

Aislinn Clarke: I think it is difficult to say to what extent the laundries were part of common knowledge. They have a much higher profile now because of recent revelations at Mother and Baby Homes, because of campaign groups seeking justice over unnecessary medical procedures performed in these places, for lives wasted. However, before that, when they were in operation, they were neither secret nor overt – they just were. My da was a breadman and he delivered bread to a number of local convents, one of which was a laundry – he used to describe the awful heat of the place, the rooms that weeped water, the damp floors, the miles of white sheets stretched across the rafters, and the red-faced girls working there. That intimate knowledge of the inner workings probably wasn’t common, but everyone knew there was somewhere that bad girls went. You may not have been able to point out the building, but it was an unarguable truth – they were somewhere. A childhood friend of my mother was snatched from the street and taken away, although, if you were to speak to her now, as an adult, she would say that she was well-treated.

Not everyone was. Not ever convent was that sort of place. My husband’s aunt spent her formative years in a children’s home that is now notorious for the mistreatment of its boarders, but she too would tell you she was well-treated. That seems to be the way, there was a system of retaining church power that rested on the exploitation and mistreatment of the weakest in its care, but it wasn’t all clergy, it wasn’t every church building. Like an abusive relationship, it is the threat, as well as the execution, that maintains the power balance. There was the threat that bad girls went somewhere, even if most people couldn’t say where the place was, even if they didn’t have a name for it – the abstraction was part of its power. It loomed there.

My colleague at Queen’s University, the playwright Michael West, said of the film that the power of its premise was identifying the Magdalene Laundry as “Ireland’s haunted house” and that’s a good analogy for what Ireland knew of the laundries at the time: the house on the hill that you know to keep out of, nothing else needed to be known. It was part of the national landscape – like our other institutions: the reformatory, the borstal, the mother and baby homes, the special needs homes – these were places that people were put so not to be seen and, thus, the places themselves were visible and invisible.

Still fromTHE DEVIL’S DOORWAY

My husband remembers a boys home beside his school in the early nineties; it had a high, wrought iron gate and a long lane that ran to a distant building up a hill. He never saw anybody come in or go out, even though it was in operation. That was where bad boys went. The building a sort of bogeyman – it didn’t come to you, you went to it. Of course, it wasn’t the priests he was scared of, as a child, but the bad boys or being a bad boy himself. All the institutions were the same.

That’s the context of the laundries when I grew up. It’s hard to say how present they were. They were even in the background. The last one closed in 1996, which was the year before I had my son – I was 17 and, in a not too distant world, I could have been one of those girls. Any of us could have been, of course. We were all sinners and all a hair’s breadth from being sent somewhere for correction – and we would have been thankful for it too, apparently.

My real research began when I started looking into making a documentary in 2005. I spoke to lots of survivors. I spoke to lots of people who had been born in these places. The stories were harrowing and there were lots of them. It doesn’t take you to go far to find some connection to any of these places, but the all-powerful Irish shame meant that no one talked about it for a long time, for fear of being the only ones talking. Everyone was touched in some way, but everyone felt as though they experienced it in isolation.

I’m intrigued by the choice to use this real-life horror story as the foundations for a found footage horror film in particular; of all the ways to present this material, this is a really fascinating choice in regards to the tensions between factuality and fantasy. I’d really love to hear what made you focus on this subgenre in particular format-wise; did you always intend it to be a found footage horror film?

The found-footage came first. The producers wanted to make a found-footage film first and foremost – as many low-budget film-makesr do. Then they had the idea to incorporate Magdalene Laundries. When they came to me, looking for a director, they had a one-pager on a contemporary found-footage film, captured on go-pro, in an abandoned building. I thought there was much more in the idea than that. If I was going to do a Magdalene Laundry story, it had to be in their heyday – the 1960s. And if I was going to do a found-footage film, it would have to add to the story and the aesthetic. It was my first feature and it was a lot to risk, but I told them I would only do it if it was a period piece, shot on film. The girls couldn’t be the villains. The possession had to be ambiguous. Thankfully, they went for it.

Really, the found-footage approach was perfect for the story. I wanted to create a Gothic piece and so many of the great Gothic novels are written as episolatory novels or diaries. They are presented as documents of things you won’t believe. In one sense, they are documentaries – documents that present one perspective on the story. The Gothic is also about uncovering hidden things, the heroines – it’s always heroines! – pry, that’s their main activity and it generally doesn’t go well. Found-footage seemed like a continuation of something like The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed (1836). If I could combine that with the aesthetic of the Maysles Brothers film, then I would have something that presented heightened truth – something that begs you to believe in it. The something that is revealed is almost too much to be true. That’s why our cameraman is called Fr. John, he is John the Revelator.

Still from THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY

I think found-footage and religion are a very definite fit. As you say, they both have at their heart and investment in the truth, in the believability of what is experience. They believe in an objective reality that is observable and, in the case of found-footage, it is recordable. Where narrative film has the sense of being curated, found-footage purports to be raw, like the footage of an objective, omniscient observer. That’s why I wanted scenes like the birth scene, for example, where there is no one behind the camera: it is no longer John’s point of view, but an eye that watches without acting in the world – the eye of God maybe or just the objective reality that can be looked in on.

John’s last words – although they’re not completely audible – are “You’ve got to hope someone is watching.” He’s probably talking about God, but he’s talking about the audience too. Those who believe in God and those who survive to the end of a found-footage film share this in common: their experience is not in vain because – indeed, it is motivated by the fact that – it is validated by an external observer. They are not alone.

AHN: There’s an extraordinary moment very early in the film where Helena Bereen’s Mother Superior strips back almost from the outset the line between text and subtext; The Devil’s Doorway thoroughly won me over when she tells Lalor Roddy’s Father Thomas that far from being the enemy or an oppressor, the role of her and her colleagues was to cover up the results of the male clergy’s sexual abuse of young women, and she goes as far I believe to even use the phrase “dirty laundry”. I’d love to hear from you how you balance the political power of horror for social and cultural critique in The Devil’s Doorway, and how you weave that through the more overt ‘horror’ codes and conventions?

I think it’s important to start with the drama, to be conscious of what the characters’ experience is within the world of the story, even before the supernatural elements appear. For me, the supernatural elements wouldn’t have the same potency if the audience didn’t connect with the characters – they must have complex relationships outside their shared horror experience. Therefore, it is impossible to write an effective horror story – that is, one that horrifies, rather than just scares – without it having some socially recognisable component – we have to recognize something in it. Monsters, ghosts, and all the things we’re afraid have mean something, we are scared of them for a reason, because of what they mean, what they represent, what they say about us or people we know. Therefore, their place in a story becomes almost natural, self-explanatory – our myths are metaphors for our real fears; in a story, they are extensions, manifestations of the horrific truth. In a place like a Magdalene Laundry, where female innocence and sexuality were contained, where the duality of the Catholic view of woman – as innocents and temptresses, as powerless and powerful – is institutionalized, a possession was a completely natural extension – those places existed because Ireland and the Catholic church viewed women like that, as vessels of an evil sexuality that must be restrained.

In terms of that speech, it was suggested, once I’d delivered the script, that the Mother Superior should hold her tongue a while and curtail her treatment of the girls in the home. The note thought it would be stronger if the barbarism of the institution was revealed over time and that the nun should initially play deferential or coy. No Irish person – indeed, no Catholic – would believe that for a second. In presenting her that way – with that degree of candour and unselfconsciousness – I wasn’t levelling anything at nuns in particular. The revelation was not that these places were awful – everyone knows that now. The revelation is the Church-State system that supported these places – and the other institutions and the other practices – in Ireland was self-sustaining, that these people were part of it, and they knew their part and they didn’t know how – or if – to break out of it.

Still from THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY

AHN: The setting of the film in a past historical moment is a really interesting choice, and I love how the use of analogue media that is so present in every scene is aligned so tightly with this designation of a previous time. But that being said, the film feels so urgent and contemporary in what it has to say. Can you talk me through this relationship between the past and the present in The Devil’s Doorway, both in terms of the technology that defines its diegetic ‘documentary’ and this broader question of how the past more thematically feeds into the present in a political/ideological sense?

I’ve always been inspired by techniques and tropes of the past. I had shot on film before; I’ve staged radio plays; I’ve made silent films. I’m interested in all these forms and how different media and times offer different textures and different opportunities. In The Devil’s Doorway, for example, I was interested in how the characters would mostly record image and sound on separate devices and the opportunities there were to disassociate the two in order to see and hear things differently. In silent film, there is a different relationship between visual, sound, and audience experience. I am interested in how the audience will experience what they see and hear and placing a piece in the past or using techniques from the past bring that to the forefront as a film-maker – there are moments when the audience feel very intimate with the characters and moments when they feel very estranged from them.

That said, as a storyteller, I care about human stories, emotional stories, and these, I think, are timeless. The emotional arcs for characters are recognisable, no matter when the story is set. However, I will bring modern sensibilities to my stories and the temptation to compare the past and present or underline similarities and differences between then and now. Horror, especially, with its licence to tweak reality, allows us to make have that commentary, in a way that a straight historical drama might not be able to.

The film had its world premiere on the day that the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the 8th Amendment, which constitutionally criminalized abortion in the country. Given the long-lingering mark of the Church-State’s power in Ireland, it would be impossible to make a film about the recent past that didn’t also have contemporary relevance. Indeed, even know, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland – where I live – and proposed legislation drafted in the Republic after the referendum now looks like it will not bring about any realistic change. We are still very tied to and by the past here.

AHN: There’s clearly a lot of love for The Exorcist here, and while a distinct reference point, it’s more of a love letter than fan service. I’d be very keen to hear your thoughts on how The Exorcist ‘fits’ into your broader vision of The Devil’s Doorway on this front?

AC: I saw The Exorcist when I was 7. I watched it with my da, who let us watch all the horror films, but nothing with sex in it. I was terrified, but, then, I was a little Catholic girl in Ireland – all that stuff was very real and possible to me.

That said, The Exorcist wasn’t a prime reference for me in making the film. Of course, it came up in conversation, but my mind was elsewhere. In terms of the challenges to faith, I was influenced by the questions raised in Charles Beaumont’s The Howling Man – the power of ambiguity to undermine faith. Of course, the elements of possession are codified by the Catholic church, but I wanted to avoid the tropes of possession films as much as possible – no demon voice; using physical violence sparingly. I wanted the possession to be a side note. That’s not what the film is about. The possession underlines the horror of the place – the girl may or may not warrant the treatment that she’s given and, certainly, that’s how the church saw women: partly possessed, partly in need of protection.

The Exorcist does show an optimistic view. Living in Ireland, I invariably end up making small-talk with a lot of priests at a lot of weddings. They love horror films and they love The Exorcist. It validates their worldview. However, I think The Devil’s Doorway does to some extent too. In The Exorcist, Fr. Karras’ faith is restored by his actions – the possession is reversed! In The Devil’s Doorway, neither the possession nor priest wins out – the system that governs them both wins. That might seem pessimistic, but I think that, while no one’s faith in God is restored in the film, they are still emboldened morally. Even without faith, in fact, in their darkest despair and hardest test, the priests make the courage leap. They fight for the right thing, even when everything within their faith system directs them to act otherwise. The kernel of their faith in a good God wins out over their “faith” as directed by the church. I think there is optimism too in the fact that it’s a period piece – it may address contemporary issues, but the specifics are relegated to the past. Things can change, but it takes courage rather than faith.

Still from THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY

AHN: There seems to be a real tension in the film that I really liked that was torn between this reverence to the iconography and iconology of Roman Catholicism and the ugly ‘truth’ that lies underneath. Was this a conscious strategy, and how does one approach the question of style and form in the context of the supposed ‘realism’ that found footage horror maintains as its central aesthetic and narrative conceit?

AC: I reckon that Catholicism’s longevity is down to its strong visual branding. The iconography is so strong and transmits it mixed messages so easily that it is readable and alluring, even for those without faith. If you based a research study on horror films alone, it would be easy to believe that Catholicism was the same cultural force it was 500 years ago and that all other beliefs are fringe cults. This is because it looks so good on film and everyone recognizes a Catholic priest, they recognize a Catholic nun, and they recognize the Blessed Virgin. They may not know the specifics of any part of the mass or of the sacraments, but they recognize that – within a horror film, at least – these are the good guys.

Certainly, as a girl growing up Catholic in Ireland, the aesthetic kept me devout much longer than the theology. I don’t think there is any Catholic girl who doesn’t dream of being a nun, who doesn’t look longingly at the images of the BVM with an aspiration to be her. Given how poorly women are treated within Catholicism, the Virgin’s power must be strong to keep so many women on side. It’s like being in an abusive relationship: I know they treat other women badly, but, if they just treated me like they treated her, it would be worth it. Or to be a nun, a bride of Christ, to marry a man who really loves and will treat you well. When Kathleen, the possessed girl, says she “really love(s) the statues,” she is serious – the statues are real, they’re powerful, aspiration, they represent everything we want to, but cannot be, they are are conduit to the divine.

Still from THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY

Thus, there isn’t any real distinction between style and substance in Catholicism. The Catholic mindset is one of duality, both things are true at once – it is bread and body; he is fully god and man; she is both virgin and mother. A thing can be simultaneously surface and substance. Indeed, the surface counts, even while the observer is debased. Catholicism comes from the experienced, rather than the understood, and it is experienced through repetition and objects standing in place of abstracts.

John’s long lingering shots of religious artefacts feels completely natural to me. That’s what a Catholic film-maker would focus on. He focuses on the statue, hoping it will bleed, but he films all the other paraphernalia as well, hoping for the same thing. The Catholic search for truth is funneled through these objects, so the substance in the film he is making is found in the style of Catholic iconography.

AHN: A lot of the press the film has received really emphasises its status as the first feature-length horror film written and directed by a woman in Ireland, and I am curious about your thoughts on this. I’m also doubly interested in this as found footage horror is an area where I’ve found a surprising absence of women filmmakers – there’s Tara Anaïse’s Dark Mountain and a few others, but I’ve long been surprised how few women filmmakers have experimented with the form. I’m very curious to hear your thoughts on this labelling of “woman filmmaker” as opposed to just “filmmaker”, particularly considering the intense focus on gender politics in The Devil’s Doorway?

AC: As a woman – and an Irishwoman at that – gender issues are hard for me to ignore, when emotional honesty is such an important part of why I do what I do. I am conscious of being perceived as a “woman filmmaker” and I am happy to be visible as a woman making films. As long as it is visible and not obstructive, I can see the value of that. It is certainly easy to feel ghettoised within the genre of “female stories.” I am also an “Irish filmmaker,” however I don’t feel the adjective Irish prevents my work being judged objectively against the work of my peers, whereas I think the adjective female does – it seems to delineate who is allowed to be my peer.

As for the found-footage question, I don’t think I have anything that I would say publicly, but I would be interested in carrying on that conversation, if it is something you’ve thought about. Anecdotally, my experience of other female directors is that many of them tend to be very diligent, realizing that they have to hold themselves to a higher standard to be taken seriously. They are on top of everything, have every detailed work out, and won’t go until everything is in place. It is too big a risk to be otherwise – they’re not granted the luxury of doing work that is roughly-hewn. By the same experiential measure, many male directors I meet feel much more entitled to attention, to respect, and are confident that their talent will be seen through whatever limitations they have. As found-footage is something that film-makers do at the beginning of their career, I imagine many female directors simply wouldn’t risk their few opportunities on a form that has so many built-in imperfections and that is already a magnet for heavy-handed amateur critique. They’ll take their chance on the script they’ve perfectly honed, with the shot list they’ve worked through carefully. Even then they’ll be held to a ridiculous standard. Even in my case, the producers came to me wanting to make a found-footage film. It’s not something I would planned to make myself, but the opportunity arose, I had a vision for it was interesting, and I had a moral obligation to make sure that a horror film about the laundries was intelligent and compassionate and not exploitative.

The film is unusual in the genre, I think, in being fully scripted – most are not. And my producers and co-writers didn’t want a script at all, but there is no way that we could have created that world and those characters – almost 60 years ago – through improvisation alone. There was too much specific knowledge, too much priestly jargon. But the (male) producers would have been happy to hoof it, because they wouldn’t have been under the scrutiny as I would have been as a female director.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She has written for publications including Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, Overland, The Monthly, 4:3 Film, Meanjin, The Big Issue and Diabolique Magazine, and has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on Elaine May and writing a book on the history of women in the horror genre.