Debbie Ging
School of Communications, Dublin City University

Creative Commons 4.0 by Debbie Ging. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Capital Letters (2004)

Directed and Script by Ciarán O’Connor

Principle Cast: Ruth Negga; Neilí Conroy; Martin Dunne; Niall O’Brien; Jasmine Russell; Karl Sheils

Cinematography by Ruairi O’Brien

Original Music by Niall O’Sullivan

Produced by Linda Cardiff, Nuala Cunningham

Given the paucity of Irish films that deal with immigration or other aspects of minority-ethnic experience or identity, it is perhaps unsurprising that the few productions which have ventured into this territory have borne an impossibly heavy ‘burden of representation’. They tend to run the risk of being criticised either for presenting an unrealistically upbeat vision of multicultural Ireland or for portraying immigrants as victims and thus peddling negative stereotypes. Short films such asBuskers (2000) and Yo Ming is Aimn Dom (2003) seem to get it right by refusing to ignore that immigration has the potential to produce conflict, yet at the same time demonstrating that both majority and minority cultures are positively transformed by adopting an intercultural approach to multi-ethnicity. Of The Nephew (1998), on the other hand, Harvey O’Brien has commented that the racial angle, while having the potential to give the film some edge, is «peculiarly muted and confined to one or two punchlines and an embarrassingly bad scene where farm-hand Phelim Drew sings a rap version of ‘Whisky in the Jar’. It seems that Ireland is not quite ready to face up to its racial demons yet, though I suppose it is notable that a black character features so prominently in an Irish film at all» (Harvey’s Movie Reviews,http://homepage.

It would appear that Irish filmmakers are reluctant to tackle politically sensitive issues of which they have little or no direct experience, while the lack of minority-ethnic professionals working in the industry means that ‘authentic’ or non- western perspectives on events are few and far between. However, even when minority-ethnic writers, producers and directors do gain a foothold in a particular country’s film or television industry, the pressure to speak on behalf of an entire community –bound together in terms of cultural or national origin but heterogeneous in other ways– may well conflict with their own artistic and political goals. What pleases critics, academics, policy-makers and audiences may differ considerably, and opinions on what is acceptable, desirable or authentic will always be contentious. In this respect, Ciaran O’Connor’s Capital Letters (2004) is an encouraging example of how a powerful message can be delivered about racism and globalisation within a film that is not explicitly about ethnicity or questions of intercultural conflict or coexistence. O’Connor recognises the limits of how this story can be told and wisely confines his social critique to the misogynist and racist power structures within the Irish criminal underworld which allow human trafficking and prostitution to thrive rather than attempting to (over)interpret his protagonist’s culture or experiences.

Capital Letters opens with a young black woman Taiwo (Ruth Negga) being delivered to a Dublin backstreet in the back of a transit van. Unaware of the fact that she has been ‘imported’ by ruthless brothel owner and gangster McManus, she is nonetheless suspicious and fearful, and succeeds in escaping, only to be spotted and picked up by Keeley (Karl Shiels), a small-time criminal in the trafficking business. Keeley decides to keep Taiwo for his own financial gain, and offers her a bed, food and the prospect of a job in exchange for a percentage of her earnings. A tender if somewhat ambiguous relationship develops between the two and Keeley finds her a job serving drinks in a lap-dancing club. Before long, however, the owner forces her to dance for his clients and thus begins the silent and painful disintegration of Taiwo’s innocence and her descent into a life of degradation and drug use. By getting to know Taiwo through her monosyllabic exchanges with Keeley and the other characters she confronts, the audience gets a genuine sense of how ignorant this alien world is about her culture and how little it matters anymore who she is or where she has come from. The film’s failure to disclose her national identity is neither a cop-out nor an attempt to portray a generic or universal experience of immigration but rather a device that highlights the trauma and helplessness experienced by a thinking, feeling human being who is suddenly perceived purely as a commodity. As a counterpoint to this world in which she is powerless and voiceless, Taiwo’s inner monologue gives the viewer privileged access to her thoughts and fears, her compassionate personality and her intense relationship with and love for her sister, who is also trying to get to Ireland.

When McManus discovers that Keeley has taken Taiwo, he sends brothel manager Leslie (Jasmine Russell) to take her back and she is forced to start working as a fully-fledged prostitute. When Keeley finds out, he tries to buy Taiwo back by borrowing 25,000 Euros from the lap-dancing club owner and, even though McManus agrees to the deal, he beats and brutally rapes her to punish Keeley for taking what wasn’t his in the first place. Keeley then kills MacManus but is subsequently killed himself by Leslie’s henchmen. Betrayed by Keeley and now owned by Leslie, Taiwo must resign herself to a life of sexual exploitation with only the arrival of her sister to look forward to, which we are told at the end of the film is being organised by Leslie the following day. Capital Letters, therefore, is as much about the abuse of women in the sex industry as it is about racism. Although it demonstrates how powerful men exploit and oppress less powerful men, and how solidarity among women is severely compromised within the political economy of a male-owned global sex trade, it pulls no punches in its ultimate message that women and, in particular, women of colour are always bottom of the heap.

Shot mostly indoors with a dark, grainy feel and an edgy soundtrack, Capital Letters presents an image of Dublin’s seedy underworld that is refreshingly at odds with Lad Culture’s glib, blokeish celebration of gangsters, lap-dancing and the criminal underworld, which has become a cliché of so many contemporary British films as well as a raft of recent Irish films (I Went Down, The General, Headrush, Last Days in Dublin, Flick, Man About Dog, Intermission). Sexual violence, misogyny and racism, stripped of rapid editing, witty, ironic dialogue and a thumping soundtrack, are exposed for what they are. The camera’s gaze focuses not on the female lap dancers’ bodies but is turned back on the voyeur to reveal the dark, vacant and desperate expressions of Taiwo’s male clients. It is in fact a film much closer in tone to Stephen Frears’ Dirty, Pretty Things (2002) than to anything that has come out of Ireland, and compels those who regard this country’s newfound accession to the playground of the global sex industry as liberating or progressive to take a long, hard look at what is happening behind the scenes. Avoiding sentimentality right up to the end, there is little comfort in the film’s closure, as Taiwo, in voiceover, composes a letter to her mother. Her voice is lonely and detached yet not entirely devoid of hope as herself and her sister face into a precarious future. The feeling of uncertainty and discomfort with which we are left is fitting, given that the real story of trafficking women from other countries for use in the Irish sex industry is probably only just beginning.