University College Dublin, Ireland
(Frank Berry, 2022)
Aisha (2022) opens with the sounds of drumming and, following the initial credits and title screen, we see images of a group of men and women of different ethnicities dancing to traditional African music. The people are lost in the enjoyment of the dance, smiles playing across their faces as their bodies move in time with the music. Our first glimpse of the title character of the film is at this point as she obstructs a clear view of all the dancers, centred in the framing, out of focus and captured from behind, nodding along appreciatively with the music. This first image encapsulates both the centrality of Aisha to the story, and the self-preserving keeping of distance that she strives to maintain. This somewhat utopian scene is then interrupted by men in uniform—the guards and staff who run this direct provision centre as we soon learn—shutting down the class and telling the organisers that the room is “booked for staff” despite remonstrations from the organisers that the space had been reserved and that they were almost finished. The power imbalance in the accommodation centre is quickly established, as we see Aisha warning a fellow resident not to challenge the staff, foreshadowing later events in the film where she does just that with negative consequences.
If the opening of Aisha is somewhat blunt in its metaphorical evocation of a vibrant multicultural space being repressed by a petty and inflexible bureaucracy, the film goes on to develop a more nuanced account of the difficulties of those trapped within the asylum-seeking system in Ireland. This is achieved, through a series of comparisons and contrasts the film sets out between its central and peripheral characters, non-Irish and Irish alike. The film also presents the Irish countryside in a manner that upends its usual idyllic associations of community and solace. The film is the third feature from director Frank Berry following I Used to Live Here (2014) and Michael Inside (2017), the two films he made after his breakout documentary Ballymun Lullaby (2011). Aisha marks the latest addition to an impressive body of work that brings a much-needed focus on those living on the margins of contemporary Ireland and secures Berry’s status as the leading Irish proponent of a socially conscious cinema, informed by the extensive research of the social systems he portrays.
The film follows Aisha Osagie, a Nigerian refugee, played by Guyanese-British actress Letitia Wright, as she negotiates the bureaucratic intricacies of the international protection application process and associated accommodation and welfare provisions (direct provision as the system is named) in contemporary Ireland. Over the course of the film Aisha is moved on from her accommodation twice causing her to lose her part-time job and jeopardise a burgeoning relationship with security guard Conor (Josh O’Connor) whom she befriends at the direct provision centre we see at the film’s opening. In its usage of on location shooting and non-professional actors in background roles, the film deploys some of the key features of social realist cinema, a mode of filmmaking most associated with English director Ken Loach, though the influence of European filmmakers such as the Dardennes brothers and the Romanian new wave are apparent in this work as well. However, the casting of Wright, who balances her impressive output in independent cinema features such as The Silent Twins with mainstream fare such as the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, brings an A-list billing to this restrained feature, perhaps reflecting awards-season ambitions for this film. Certainly, Wright’s presence, and that of her English Emmy-winning co-star O’Connor (The Crown) may give some clue as to the film being optioned by the UK broadcaster Sky, which marketed the film as a “Sky Original,” with the film getting dual release in cinemas and on Sky Cinema and Sky’s streaming option NOW TV. Sky is increasingly vying with streaming rivals such as Netflix and Amazon, and an investment in prestige drama film is one of the main strategies it has employed (Pulver 2023). Aisha’s combination of award-winning and high-profile central talent combined with a socially resonant narrative that captures one of the most pressing issues facing Western nations aligns with this strategy and pilots a potentially viable mode of distribution for future Irish film in a cinematic era increasingly shaped by the competing strategies of streaming platforms.
A central theme of the film is the tension between the self-protective barrier that Aisha has erected in which a brittle emotional resilience is seemingly underpinned through the repression of traumatic memories, and a system that demands the potential refugee explains in as explicit terms as possible the events that caused them to flee in the first place. Aisha’s lawyer, in advance of her panel interview to gain the right to stay in Ireland, warns that she needs to “put them in the room” as she recounts an incident in which her father and brother were killed, and she was raped. The film’s strongest critique is achieved in highlighting the insensitivities of a system that processes some of the most vulnerable people at the fringes of society. It is tempting to draw a parallel between the understandable reticence of the central character and the aesthetic qualities of the film itself. Unlike several recent films and television dramas dealing with the refugee narratives, Aisha seemingly refuses to abide by conventional techniques for securing audience engagement. We are not provided with any dramatic scenes of violence in flashback, the romance between Aisha and Conor is lightly sketched as the reserved pair tentatively negotiate their burgeoning feelings, and there is little humour to leaven the tension-filled narrative. Likewise, the ending of the film withholds any resolution that might provide catharsis for the watching audience.
Figure 1: Aisha and Conor converse on a Dublin Bus
Other recent portrayals of asylum-seeking within Ireland and Europe have utilised popular genre features in seeking out an audience. Irish drama series Taken Down (RTÉ, 2018), for instance, also features a Nigerian asylum seeker in the direct provision system who comes into conflict with petty and corrupt accommodation staff, but the television drama, taking cues from the recent success of Nordic noir drama, depicts the aftermath of the murder of a young woman and utilises a police procedural narrative foregrounding prostitution and organised crime. One of Wright’s earlier lead roles was in the BBC television drama Glasgow Girls (2013). This drama was based on the true story of a group of refugee girls of school age in Glasgow who fronted a campaign to prevent their friend being deported and highlighted the practice of dawn raids and children being separated from their friends and uprooted from their education by the immigration authorities in the UK. Glasgow Girls, distinct but drawing influence from the successful stage musical of the same name which preceded it, uses both musical numbers, as well as a narrative of working-class community cohesion to craft an uplifting account of the vagaries of the UK immigration system as well as the possibilities of change through organised protest.
Aisha, in contrast, has the much more challenging, on a narrative level, task of reflecting a system tied up with bureaucracy, that is seemingly engineered to thwart the speedy resolution of the claim. This goes against the forward momentum that characterises popular cinema and televisual narrative. Celebrated filmmaker John Sayles, who has worked as a Hollywood script editor on big budget movies such as Apollo 13, has detailed that a major element of this type of work is “to take out factors which get in the way of a smooth flow of story or the perceived enjoyment of a mass audience, and these are often the political and economic realities of whatever era the movie is set in” (Quoted in Tzioumakis 2011, 339). Aisha, thus, in focusing solely on its central character’s political and economic impediments, goes against the grain of popular narrative, and emerges at a moment when this form of social realist filmmaking is purportedly in decline (Rose 2019). Even I, Daniel Blake (2016), Ken Loach’s celebrated film detailing the plight of a man caught up in a similarly byzantine bureaucratic system to the one depicted in Aisha while trying to receive employment and support allowances to which he is entitled has a seam of black humour running through it to counterbalance the bleakness of its excavation of failing social care in the UK. If, as some accounts put it, films such as this struggle to make an impact beyond middle-class cinephile audiences who feel “guilty for watching, but guiltier for not watching” then the aesthetic approaches taken in such filmmaking are perhaps open to question.
While Aisha’s ability to find an audience is perhaps worthy of deliberation, the deftness with which it presents its subject matter is not in doubt. As mentioned, one method by which the film provides a multi-faceted account of the attitudes of those caught up in the system and those they encounter daily is through a series of parallels and comparisons. Aisha’s interactions with the customers in the hairdressing salon in which she works part-time, for instance, are contrasted with the conversations she has with the fellow residents for whom she provides beauty treatments in her room. While the Irish salon customers make polite conversation, they occasionally betray well-meaning but misguided opinions, such as one customer’s assertion that “it’s good they make you work now, isn’t it?” When Aisha is later vindictively moved to a rural direct provision centre, she is forced to give up her job, exposing the precarity of such employment. The contrasting montage within the detention centre provides an opportunity for people caught up in direct provision (the characters are played for the most part by non-professional actors evidently drawing upon direct experience) to give some insight into their status, highlighting some of the inadequacies of the Irish system.
Aisha’s relationship with Conor foregrounds the parallels between the two, as we learn of his own situation as a former prisoner and victim of childhood sexual abuse. The relationship provides a segue between Berry’s previous award-winning film Michael Inside, which detailed the failings of the Irish prison system, and Aisha’s portrayal of direct provision. The parallels between incarceration and the treatment of those claiming international protection repeatedly emerge throughout the film. At one point, Aisha and Conor meet some of his former acquaintances from prison, exchange pleasantries and move on. It is a seemingly inconsequential moment but underlines the difficulties of those on the fringes of society to integrate and thrive in contemporary Ireland. The homologies between those predominantly coming from deprived communities within Ireland and those seeking international protection at the time of writing in early 2023 resonate with a national conversation regarding the placement of asylum seekers in accommodation in working class urban areas. The Irish government’s tendency to accommodate asylum seekers in urban areas that are already lacking in resources has fuelled far-right elements within these communities, and sparked counter-protests from those asserting that asylum seekers are welcome, but that there should be a greater level of consultation regarding the provision of services. Certainly Aisha, and indeed Berry’s entire oeuvre, makes the case for these communities having more in common than not and in its empathetic presentation of the plight of those caught up in direct provision offers a compelling case for an expansive deployment of social justice in the Ireland of the 2020s.
One central theme of Aisha is the presentation of mobility as a paradoxical brake on agency. The centrality of mobility is conveyed through the film’s mise-en-scène, in which Aisha is commonly depicted either waiting for or taking public transport. The growing intimacy between Aisha and Connor, for instance, is charted visually through their initially physical distance while waiting at a bus stop, to the pair gradually sitting nearer each other and conversing on the bus (figure 1), finally to them making journeys together on a coach trip to the rural residence to which she is moved. Part of the film’s message is that mobility, associated with freedom and autonomy, not least in the machinations of popular cinema, can also be experienced punitively. While it may seem as if the restriction of one’s movement in a carceral context and the enforced dislocations that are common to direct provision are very different. As political geographer Nick Gill suggests, ‘mobility is perfectly commensurate with confinement and has been used as a constituent element of confinement within prisons for many years’ (Gill 2013, 20). A key exchange early in the film has Aisha challenge the manager of her accommodation in Dublin, when she seeks to comfort a family being moved as they are hastily ushered into a car, and is being told to move inside. “This is not a prison,” she argues, “we can stand out here.” The rest of the film, in effect, charts the ramifications of the manager’s softly spoken response, “Keep that up. See where it gets you.”
Where it gets Aisha, of course, is moved against her wishes to a rural direct provision centre, where she no longer has the possibility of paid employment. Rural Ireland has a number of longstanding associations in cinema from its earliest depictions in films like The Lad from Old Ireland (1902), to Hollywood classic The Quiet Man (1956) and up to the present with celebrated films such as The Banshees of Inisherin (2022). As film scholar Conn Holohan (2015, 17) argues, these cinematic conventions conjure a rural Ireland that often serves as a respite from the vagaries of the urban. However, for Aisha the move to a rural accommodation has none of the associations with “intimacy and homecoming” (Holohan 2015, 17) common in depictions of the Irish countryside. The jeopardy of this move is quickly made clear in a short scene in which we see Aisha waiting at a bus stop, only for a car of three predatory young men to stop at the isolated spot waving a €50 note, asking “Do you want to earn some money?” The vulnerability of asylum seekers to prostitution was one of the key reasons why the ban on the right to work for those within the system was lifted in 2018, yet the lack of opportunities for work within commutable distance of the more isolated centres show the inadequacies of the government amendment.
Figure 2: The rural direct provision centre contradicts conventional depictions of rural dwellings in Irish cinema.
In some ways Aisha presents an ambivalent depiction of the Irish rural landscape. Occasional images, such as a shot showing the Bus Eireann coach she is travelling on slowly traversing a country road across barren but scenic hilly terrain could have been lifted directly from Tourism Ireland promotional materials. However, one striking image of the rural direct provision centre (figure 2) gains force from how alien it is from traditional depictions of rural domiciles. If we accept that the Irish cottage has been an enduring symbol of Irishness, one that has persisted in palimpsestic form across various media from the paintings of Paul Henry to the classic cinematic depictions detailed above on to contemporary iterations on social media and reality television (McIntyre 2021, 69-73), the depiction of the rural direct provision centre in wide shot (figure 2) seems its very antithesis. Rather than quaint and individualised, the gated community of temporary homes set in a geometrical formation is homogenised and void of character. Redolent of carceral architectures from wartime prison camps to the H-blocks in Troubles era Northern Ireland, this image of domesticity is all the more severe situated as it is in the verdant and lush surroundings of the Irish countryside. While the inhabitants are free, as one direct provision centre worker puts it, to leave at any point, with few connections or possibilities for employment, these sites are presented as de facto open prisons.
Aisha presents the direct provision system as one characterised by a crisis of inadequate means and in need of urgent upgrade. The film is set before the current influx of Ukrainian refugees into Ireland in the wake of Russia’s invasion of that country. This tragic development has seen the numbers of people seeking international protection rise exponentially. Given the dramatic escalation in numbers that has taken place over the space of two years, and the attendant tensions it has raised within Irish communities touched upon above, Aisha’s grim depiction of the system’s functioning prior to its rapid expansion is both timely and a cause for grave concern.
Film scholar John Hill (1999, 111; 244) has argued that national cinemas should be “capable of registering the lived complexities of … ‘national’ life” and often need to encompass “multiple national, regional and ethnic identities.” In Aisha we have a salient example of the possibilities of an empathetic and morally resolute cinema, one that tackles head on some of the issues of identity that have come to the fore in recent years. The contrasting images that Berry provides toward the end of the film, suggestive as they are of tourism and incarceration in turn, highlight the contradictions of a contemporary Ireland whose status as an outpost of Fortress Europe jostles uneasily alongside its preferred image as the “land of a thousand welcomes.”
Gill, Nick. (2013). “Mobility versus Liberty? The Punitive Uses of Movement within and outside Carceral Environments.” In Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention, edited by Dominique Moran, Nick Gill and Deirdre Conlon, 19–36. London: Routledge.
Hill, John. (1999). British Cinema in the Eighties. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Holohan, Conn. (2015). “‘Nothin’ but a Wee Humble Cottage’: At Home in Irish Cinema.” In Ireland and Cinema: Culture and Contexts, edited by Barry Monahan, 13–23. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
McIntyre, Anthony P. (2021). “Home Truths: Property TV, Financialization, and the Housing Crisis in Contemporary Ireland.” Television & New Media 22(1): 65–82.
Phelan, Ciara. (2023). “Officials Believe More than Half of Ukrainians Will Stay in Ireland Post-War.” Irish Examiner, 24 Jan., https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-41055347.html
Pulver, Andrew. (2023). “Sky Recruits Stars Including Florence Pugh and Adam Driver for Streaming Wars.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Feb., https://www.theguardian.com/film/2023/feb/01/sky-joins-streaming-wars-with-florence-pugh-natalie-portman-and-adam-driver.
Rose, Steve. (2019). “Beyond Ken Loach: Where Have the Social-Realists in Cinema Gone?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 28 Oct., https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/oct/28/beyond-ken-loach-where-have-the-social-realists-in-cinema-gone-sorry-we-missed-you.
Tzioumakis, Yannis. (2019). “Politics ‘Indie Style’: Political Filmmaking and Contemporary US Independent Cinema.” In The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, edited by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy, 339–353. London: Routledge.