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Interview with Ciarín Scott – director of Christina Noble documentary ‘In A House That Ceased To Be’
12 Mar 2015 : Seán Brosnan
‘In A House That Ceased To Be’ opens in the IFI from Friday, March 13th
With her documentary about Irish humanitarian and children's rights activist Christina Noble about to hit Irish cinemas (March 13) after five years in the making, IFTN talks to director Ciarín Scott.

‘In A House That Ceased To Be’ has drawn extremely positive responses from the likes of the Sunday Independent and RTÉ and won the Audience Award for Best Feature at last year’s IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival.

The film tells the story of Christian Noble, juxtaposing shots of her fantastic work with children in Vietnam and Mongolia through her Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, with interviews where Christina talks very openly and with great emotion (and sometimes anger) about her own childhood, one that saw her separated from her three younger siblings at the age of 12, with all four going on to suffer greatly in various institutions around the country.

Hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from her daring and dedication but is it possible for Christina to put her own family back together after 53 years?

For Ciarín, ‘In A House That Ceased To Be’ wasn’t just going to deal with what Christina does, but why she does what she does.

IFTN: First off, can you tell us where the idea sprung from to cover this particular aspect of Christina’s life? Were you filming for a while before you realized you wanted to go back and explore this or was it the idea from the start?

Ciarín Scott: ‘I was actually involved in two other productions at the time and I was asked to come along and film a bit about her and I said “well I’m too busy”. I didn’t know who she was which in hindsight was a great advantage because I had no pre-conceived ideas. And they said “well you know you might get a couple of weeks in Vietnam and maybe Mongolia” and I thought “right I can do that!”[laughs]. So, I went down and I met her and she asked me how I was going to make a film about her because there were many people who wanted to make a documentary about Christina over the years. So I told her I didn’t know but that I would go away and read her books and we will talk and I will follow her around. As I filmed her, she said that she used to sing these happy, Hollywood songs in the institutions back 40-50 years ago and I asked her if she would be willing to go back and re-visit these places. And because she has extraordinary courage she said yes. As we talked a little more, she told me the story about her brothers and sisters – that they had been split up and hadn’t been together as a family in 53 years which is a story that had never been told before. She said that she would love if they could get together and asked if I would ask them on her behalf. So I did and they agreed as long as the re-union wasn’t in Ireland. We certainly didn’t instigate any reunion – the family always wanted it to happen - but I think we maybe acted as a catalyst for the reunion. So, I had the spine of the story at that stage. We all know the “what” of Christina – with her great work with the kids - but this film deals with the “why”.’

You mentioned Christina’s singing there and she breaks out in song numerous times during the documentary which really adds a poignancy sometimes to the narrative – songs like “Que Sera Sera”, “Danny Boy” and of course the Dubliners tune “In the Rare Old Times” which features the lyrics that the film got its’ title from….it’s almost like she added her own soundtrack to the film…

It’s funny because I never asked her to sing. If you met Christina tomorrow, she would sing! It’s a form of language to her. In fact, I think we recorded 79 different songs in the rushes and I think we ended up using seven.’

Christina is like an open book in this film, speaking with unwavering honesty and emotion right from the start - she must have been a filmmaker and interviewer’s dream in that regard….

‘With people who have had terrible things happen to them who have survived and then went on to do extraordinary things – I don’t think you can approach them by attempting to carrel them into something that you want. I knew what I wanted but I wanted her to give it to me in a natural way and I wanted her to be comfortable talking about it. Sometimes, you would see her getting very angry - mostly when she’s talking about children suffering - like when she sees the woman pimping the boy on the streets of Vietnam (at the beginning of the film) or when she talks about the abuse suffered by her sisters and brother. That’s when she gets very angry – and I think that raw anger is something that people will feel after they finish watching this film. But she is actually a very funny woman! I get on with her very well but we were talking about very deep matters. I didn’t try to push her in any way or direct her. I just let her speak from the heart.’

As you said, there are numerous moments in the film where Christina expresses a lot of deep anger and breaks down – which as a filmmaker is perhaps what you want but as a friend it must have been hard to watch.

‘To go to the Gobi Desert and film 40 degrees below and have cables snapping and then to go on to Mekong Delta where it’s 40 degrees above and the cameras are practically melting – is extraordinary. It’s arduous but fun.’

‘What’s not fun is seeing a boy being pimped on the streets of Vietnam knowing he is probably going to be killed - seeing a lot of other things being done to children that she has rescued that we could not put in the film. And what was especially very hard for me to absorb and watch and observe was Christina and her family telling their stories. I think you would have to have a heart of stone not to be affected.’

Getting Christina to speak on film was one thing but how did you secure the trust of her siblings to give interviews that were equally as revealing?

‘I deliberately didn’t ask them any details of what happened to them. I mean, I think we all know what went on because it has been so well covered in the past and I didn’t ask them to go into it because I think that’s another form of abuse. But still, re-living it was extremely hard and a very emotional experience for them.’

Can you tell us a little about the involvement of producers Paul Duane (check out our recent interview with Duane here) and Rex Bloomstein in this film?

‘Rex is an extremely distinguished documentary filmmaker – he has made 120 documentaries, has won BAFTA’s and screened to audiences all around the world. He came on just to help and support me and he had a great “stepping back eye” when approaching the film – which of course stems from his vast experience. Paul came in and did a most fantastic job. He found the title by the way! He is a brilliant filmmaker in his own right but as a producer he was just great! We wouldn’t be having this conversation right now if it weren’t for him.’

You and DOP Steve O’ Reilly didn’t shy away from getting some fantastic shots in this film – in particular going down a Mongolian manhole in minus 40 degree weather to talk to children living there and get a glimpse of what Christina sees every day.

‘Steve, I have got to mention because a lot of the filming was just the two of us. And you can see some of the images are just fantastic and absolutely beautiful so it’s a real credit to Steve. This is made all the more extraordinary because we weren’t using a high spec camera – we used a very modest Sony EX1at the start because we didn’t have much money and we stuck with it because it wasn’t going to match the earlier images if we got a better camera. And he still got great images – he had a wonderful eye and a great sensitivity to what we were filming.’

Shooting for five years must have meant you had a mountain of footage when you and editor Tony Cranstoun were approaching the edit. Did that make it difficult establishing a narrative here, figuring out where to start but more importantly where to end?

‘I had a vision for the film and it takes a great editor to bring out that in a film. When Paul Duane saw the film, he commented that it was exactly how I described it four years earlier and that’s a testament to Tony. The shooting wasn’t continuous, it was done in patches. We started by shooting a speech in Sligo and then we filmed a peace march in 2009 and after that we spent a long day filming in Letterfrack – that’s when I thought this is going to be a feature – it’s going to be in cinemas - not just a small television documentary and I am not being rude to television documentaries. To find the storyline then was just looking at the family as a backbone. My worry was that people were going to say that this was going to be another Irish dirge about a terrible childhood in the institutions and I think people may have compassion fatigue about suffering children on the other side of the world - so I wanted to find something that would put all that on the screen without the audience getting the feeling of being lectured.’

I think approaching this film looking at the “why” of Christina’s charity work would essentially make this a story of hope rather than just another tale of Irish institutional woe – that she rose above all of that to save hundreds of thousands of children…

‘Exactly. The abuse that she suffered informs how she looks after the children. You go to Vietnam or Mongolia and you see children that have been rescued from sexual exploitation and all sorts of different abuse – and she literally gives them back their childhoods. They go to school and university and go on to lead productive lives. She makes them whole. I think the film shows that her drive and her desire to save every child comes from her not being able to save her own family when she was 12. We had a private screening of the film a few nights ago and across the road was a homeless man and Christina left everybody and went across the road to look after the homeless man. It’s something very deep inside her and she’s a really extraordinary person. I think we showed that in this film. I think she trusted me and that allowed her to be honest on camera because she knew we weren’t going to turn it into something else – something that wasn’t truthful.’

‘In A House That Ceased To Be’ opens at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute (IFI) on Friday March 13th, followed by screenings from March 20th in Galway, Cork, Dun Laoghaire, Athlone and Dundalk.

The screening taking place at the IFI on March 13 will also include a Q&A with Noble, her sisters Kathy Hurlow and Philomena Swanson and director Ciarín Scott. The interview will be hosted by Philip Boucher Hayes.

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