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In 1977 Joe Comerford wrote/directed Down the Corner, a foundational work in the emergent “first wave” of Irish Cinema. In keeping with many films from a period when filmmakers explored what an emerging indigenous cinema could and should do, the film rejected the picturesque and sided with the marginal. In this case it was a group of five teenage boys from the working-class suburb of Ballyfermot, and the film’s episodic narrative emerged from Comerford’s workshopping of ideas and experiences within the community depicted. The film depicted their world – families, community, social pressures (alcoholism, unemployment) as well as a grandmother’s recollections of 1916 – against a backdrop of a petty crime in which the boys rob an orchard. Clearly inspired by the example of the British new wave and socially-conscious film makers such as Ken Loach (shades of Kes in particular), the film also pursued more abstract levels of meaning, notably through the symbolic use of the orchard as a lost Eden that stands in contrast with their dehumanizing modern milieu.
Down the Corner is today rarely screened and thus likely unknown to many younger Irish filmmakers but it is worth invoking as a precedent when approaching the films of Frank Berry: his 2011 documentary Ballymun Lullaby; feature debut I Used to Live Here (2014) and, in particular his latest, Michael Inside (2017). Each of these have also emerged from workshops directed by Berry with working-class community groups, combining an open attitude to the often fragmented narratives of his participants with skillful storytelling. His films thus both take up from and diverge from that earlier moment in Irish film history. Masterfully connecting under-represented places and people, they display an all-too-rare engagement with the issues of the communities depicted (often casting from within such communities) while eschewing the more formally experimental elements of first wave cinema. In rendering such stories both engaging and accurate, Berry is emerging as an Irish filmmaker of real significance, deriving quietly powerful dramas from local, lived experiences. Such achievements were publically recognised when Michael Inside recently won the IFTA for best Irish Film (2017), despite not having yet had theatrical distribution in Ireland (the film had however screened at both the Galway Film Fleadh in July 2017 winning Best Irish Film, and at the Cork Film Festival where it won the Audience Award. The delayed theatrical release allowed the film build word-of-mouth on festival circuit before releasing it in Irish cinemas in early April 2018).
Having focused in his previous film on the pressing issue of “copycat” teen suicide (see my 2016 review), Berry turns to themes of crime and punishment among a similar age and social demographic here, developing his story from numerous interactions with former inmates within the Irish Prison Service’s “Pathways Programme”. Mobilizing narrative elements familiar from the prison drama genre, the film centres on a young protagonist Michael McCrea (Dafhyd Flynn, a superb non-professional actor cast in I Used to Live Here). With his father in prison and his mother dead (continuing the trope of absent Irish mothers in recent Irish cinema), Michael lives in poor circumstances in suburban Dublin – on the ironically named “Fortune Avenue” – with his grandfather Francis (Lalor Roddy). Through a combination of naivety and circumstance, Michael minds a bag of cocaine for a friend’s brother, and following a police raid he is arrested for possession of drugs. Processed by an impersonal and unsympatetic state system (we hear but do not see the prosecuting judge), he is sentenced to three months incarceration. While this is a relatively short sentence (the last month is suspended), it leaves Francis profoundly upset, and he stumbles from the court in a state of shock, fearful of what might happen to his beloved, unworldly grandson.
The film’s second act takes place “inside”, prefaced by a brilliantly evocative ten minute sequence where Micheal is processed and kept in the dimly-lit, purgatorial setting of “holding”. His passive, vulnerable status is intensfied by a cacophony of unidentified male voices: prison officers ask him if he is in fear of his life or needs protection; anonymous and circling older prisoners test and tease him before he is assigned a cell. Once inside the prison proper, he is marked by the seductive and dangerous David (Moe Dunford) who groomes him as an accomplice by offering protection from other prisoners. The conditionality of that “protection” is revealed when David stages an attack on another prisoner but insists that Michael inflict violence on the inmate. He fails, but in this brutal Darwinian environment, distinctions between perpetrator and victim meld and Michael’s relative blamelessness for his given crime, as well as his grandfather’s hopes for him emerging unscathed, become irredeemable. In an inversion of the coming-of-age narrative in which the protagonist achieves self-knowledge and a measure of freedom, the film’s third act plays out the fated consequences of this fall from innocence to experience.
While the themes and prison genre framework of Michael Inside recall a film such as Jacques Audiard’s The Prophet, its social realism, melancholic tone and empathy for the vulnerable – particularly its young protagonist – bring it closer to the realistic humanism of Dardenne brothers’ films like Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) or The Kid with a Bike (2011). There is a sense of resigned helplessness at the heart of its narrative in which Francis and Michael prove incapable of protecting themselves from the more aggressive masculinites within their own community. Dafydd Flynn’s Michael may be the most vulnerable portrait of Irish masculinity ever committed to film, openly and repeatedly expressing doubt that he can do what the proverbial man’s “gotta do”: “I can’t do it”; “I’m not cut out for it”; “I won’t make it”. Once convicted, the dynamic between the grandfather and grandson shifts, and Francis is revealed (through Lalor Roddy’s brilliant performance) to be more a man of the world than his grizzled and helpless demeanor suggests. He tells Michael to “toughen up” and keep his “head down” and although he must know that both are unlikely, it’s the only advice that Michael has and he manages to make it work for a while. Berry creates an atmosphere of claustrapobia and dread within the familiar setting of the prison, helped in no small part by the Victorian severity of the recently closed Cork prison where the film was shot and greatly aided by Tom Comerford’s muted, often hand-held cinematography as well as Daragh O’Toole’s eligiac score which sporadically interrupts and inflects the highly effective use of location sound. When Michael is finally met at the gate by Francis after his short but grulleing stint, the sense of release is both physical and psychological.
The film, however does not end there and instead pushes into an exploration of the potential for individual agency and mobility among individuals – and particularly young men – within communities where criminal masculinites have assumed hegemonic status. Its bleak conclusion is that there is precious little possibility for escape and that the various agencies of the state are inadequate and ineffectual. Furthermore, Berry offers a chilling and convincing local rendering of what sociologists refer to as “revolving door” incarceration: the process where young offenders are brought into the prison system for the ostensible purpose of rehabilitation but, hardened and institutionalised by the experience, they quickly reoffend and are returned. “Your sentence only starts when you’re released”, David gnomically warns Michael, but this proves prophetic as he vainly attempts to reassume his former life and relations. Both “toughened up” and deeply frustrated, a subsequent outburst of violence is a doubled-edged expression of rage and hopelessness. In a deeply ironic way, it is also “successful” in a way that Micheal was previously incapable of.
At a time of deepening social inequality, increasingly violent drug crime and class-coded social media outrage (see for instance reponses to the “scumbags” who vandalised the Lidl store in Tallaght #LidlLooting), Berry’s film is a profoundly timely and empathetic cultural intervention. Nuanced yet accessible thanks to a simple but strong narrative, skilful use of cinematic form and compelling performances from its the three male leads (Flynn, Dunford, Roddy), Michael Inside deserves widespread popular and critical recognition.