21 July 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
I, Dolours Director Maurice Sweeney Talks with IFTN
31 Aug 2018 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN caught up with director Maurice Sweeney to discuss his new feature documentary ‘I, Dolours’, which opens in cinemas nationwide – Friday, August 31st.

The film, which made its Irish debut at the 30th Galway Film Fleadh in July, is a cinematic yet intimate and complex portrait of Dolours Price; militant IRA activist, hunger striker and vocal opponent of the peace process who two years before she died gave a filmed interview on condition that it would not be broadcast in her lifetime.

Now for the first time her story can be told in full and entirely in her own words. This shocking film brings us deep inside the IRA and charts one woman’s journey from passionate idealist into disillusioned cynic, haunted by the memories of the terrible things she did for a cause she once so strongly believed in. A cause she killed for but, ultimately felt betrayed by.

‘I, Dolours’ is being handled by Element Pictures Distribution and Kew Media.

Directed by Maurice Sweeney, the documentary was produced by Nuala Cunningham and Ed Moloney. IFTA winning editor Mick Mahon, Composer Giles Packham and DoP Kate McCullough were also involved in the project, while actress Lorna Larkin portrays Dolours Price.

Maurice Sweeney is an IFTA Award winning Director and his previous credits include Tile Films’ ‘Saving the Titanic’, Loose Horse & Treasure Entertainment’s ‘Trial of the Century’, and October Films’ ‘Barbarians Rising’.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin spoke with Director Maurice Sweeney ahead of the films release.

IFTN: Firstly, how exactly did you get involved with the project?

Maurice: “I’d been working on a proposal about collusion or a story about Dolours that actually never got the go ahead. I was working with Ed Moloney, Jervis, and producer Nuala Cunningham from New Decade. They had mentioned, "Okay, now that's not happening there is the possibility of using an interview with Dolours Price that Ed Moloney had conducted in 2010". I got a glimpse of an extract of the interview and some transcripts and I was just fascinated by it; I just thought it was really, an unusual take on the Troubles. It was almost like a story from inside and not one that we had been used to hearing on mainstream news. It spoke of very uncomfortable truths and it was very hard to listen to some of it.  We knew we had something very special hearing the interview. ”

IFTN: Some of the things Dolours recounts in the documentary are truly shocking, in particular the story of her aunt Bridie. The film really does a great job of capturing the sectarian nature of her environment growing up at home.

Maurice: “I think that's why she felt she needed to speak at that interview in a lot of ways. I think she needed to revisit certain areas of her life. I think this film speaks out about radicalisation in a lot of ways which we see happening all over the world and I don't know if it was much different in the 1970s. Look, she was free to make choices but I think she was predisposed to Republican ideals and she lived with it physically in her house with her aunt Bridie, who was a constant reminder of the struggle; she was like a living martyr. That just pervaded the atmosphere of the house.”

IFTN: The documentary is split between three different mediums: the interviews with Dolours, the re-enactments and archive newsreel footage. Was this an approach that you brought to the table having previously done so on other projects?

Maurice: “Yes, very much so. I think from the outset we said, ‘Okay, you could go down the route of doing a Prime Time Investigates type documentary or a BBC Spotlight or an investigative journalism piece.’ To be honest with you I think a lot of people didn't want to talk to us.”

“We were not forced into that position but it pushed us down that route and I just felt it was a really strong visual story to be told in a lot of ways. Because it was just the one person telling her own story, we decided that these re-enactments in the film were almost her evoking iconic moments in her life. It's almost like her own memory rather than us totally describing it. It's her vision of what she went through, what she experienced and I think, for instance, the aunt Bridie scenes are very much like that. It's shot in a way that's almost how you would remember (it): ‘I remember walking up the stairs with the cigarettes; I remember giving her the smokes.’ It’s done quite gently and I think the dramatic scenes helped the film because we had very frenetic archives, which is the riots & bombs. Then you had this sit down, normal interview. So, I think we had to glue it together in a way from this moving camera all the time, almost like portrait shots a lot of the time. Then we continue her story with the actress playing her, almost like breaking the wall in that sense. I think it works. It's hard to do sometimes.  But I think we were careful in what we chose to do and how we did it.”

IFTN: It’s such a delicate subject matter. I’m interested to know how you chose your exact approach to telling Dolours’ story and what considerations were made when approaching the structure of the story unfolding on screen.

Maurice: “First thing is, the Jean McConville story, the big story – we knew, that (that was) what's going to end it all and we're going to build up to that.  Then we kind of sat back and said yes,that’s hugely important but that's not hugely important to (Dolours’) life, it's not the big one that turned her emotionally at the end. That was the Joe Lynsky story.  What we decided was, really that we had to be tightly balanced. I'll have to admit I was fascinated with the woman, but we really have to show the damage that she caused.  We were never going to let her get away with it. We have to balance that with horrific archive footage of bombs - I’m not saying they were their bombs but they were certainly the type of bombs that she had supplied the semtex for by driving every week from Dundalk to the North.”

“We didn't want to be too apologetic either. I never agreed with what she did, but I could understand. I remember hearing a quote before saying 'it doesn't take a monster to perform a monstrous act'. I think that it was very much a human story of the troubles in a lot of ways, with very uncomfortable truths.”

IFTN: At the recent IFTA screening you mentioned that the pre-production experience was a bit strange due to the fact that ‘the people you wanted to interview wouldn't speak to you, but the people that would speak to you, you didn't want to interview’. Can you tell me a little bit about that scenario?

Maurice: “It wasn't because it was a huge thrall, but there were very important people in her life that weren't ever going to go in front of a camera, as in her family. We knew that from the outset. They were concerned that we were doing the documentary in the first place.”

“There were a lot of people who didn’t want us to bring this up, which is not uncommon in stories of the North. I just thought that the interview was so powerful. Do we need other voices in it? What would they bring?’ Then we'd have to to balance this and balance that. We're saying ‘this is how she tells her story.’ We're not saying this is the complete story. Obviously, we have to put the important points in at the end, like ‘Gerry Adams still denies his part in the I.R.A. Jean McConville’s family absolutely deny their mother was an informer.’ I think there was just bigger themes there to explore and I think she did it so well herself. Often you don't get women talking about the troubles; they're often seen as victims. This was a unique aspect that hasn't been told before.”

IFTN: Dolours gives controversial accounts on a number of sensitive issues surrounding the IRA’s activities during the troubles. Can you tell me a little bit about the editorial process and how you decided on what to include and what not to include?

Maurice: “There is one big editorial decision that we made, we decided to shy away from heat around Gerry Adams and the IRA. We all felt that that story had been told. I think we needed to move on from that. We had to include the Gerry Adams comments as a part of ‘The Unknowns’ and the bomb in London because that is what she eventually got arrested for. That was an editorial decision. We said ‘That will just distract’.This story was about anger, this was about republicanism, it was about radicalization. It was about what happens to a person when they commit their life to violence and what is the residual effect of that on the person themselves.”

IFTN: When watching this documentary Dolours gives very little cause to doubt her personal account of what happened. Was this something that played on your mind whilst making this film?

Maurice: We found ourselves questioning every aspect of it but thankfully we were able to use Ed as a background because he knew her. We have that actual effect while I was looking at an interview that I have to use my own instinct on. The fact that I never knew her but I would often go to Ed Maloney and say, "what was she talking about there? What’s the background?" We were very, very careful of how we treated that stuff because look, what she did to Jean McConville was unconscionable. It was shocking, but she was very cold about it. She told that story in the third person. Then we ask ourselves ‘What reason does she have to lie?’ Especially if it's coming out after her death and she knew that they were the grounds of the interview being given. I believe - as unwholesome as some truths are - what was said in the film was true. I can't definitively say (it is true), we're not trying to prove it. I trusted my own instincts as a filmmaker. There was a lot of other research done and other documentaries. I think there are a lot of these documentaries that came out before. There’s nothing hugely new in it - bar say the Jean McConville and The Unknowns stuff. It's all been said before it's just the way that it's told I think is new.”

IFTN: The re-enactments play such a pivotal part in the documentary, can you tell me a little bit about the casting process?

Maurice: “We tried a few actresses and a lot of them shied away actually, because it was no secret that she was married to Stephen Rea before. I think he loomed large in the background. He never actually stopped it - that's not the case at all, but I think a few actors were nervous about it. I remember meeting Lorna Larkin one day who actually ended up playing Dolours. She was totally up for it, she had that sparkle in her eyes that I saw in the interview. We did a lot of makeup tests and we did costumes and Lorna has that amazing ability as an actress to age brilliantly. She was really amazing. She just had that fearlessness that I think Dolours probably had.”

IFTN: I would imagine it was quite crucial to have an actor who was 100% committed to getting into the more traumatic side of Dolours story?

Maurice “We talked her very much through ‘Look, this is the background of what happened.’ There was loads of prep there for her. We had to get physical force-feeding scenes and she was brilliant. She totally gave herself to it. She was roughly manhandled on the set. It was a hard physical role to play and she had to do it through body language a lot. She was a real talent and I think she was actually a dream to work with, she was really great. I thought, she brought an empathy to it, that this young girl, helpless in a political storm ended up making decisions she made. She showed a naivety that changed into one of the most committed and ruthless members of the provisional IRA in this short period of time.”

IFTN: The film releases in Irish cinemas on Friday, August 31st, can you tell our readers about its festival run so far and any plans for the future?

Maurice: “We premiered it in North America, we did Toronto and HotDocs and it was really well received and it was important for us to go abroad first with the film just to see if an international audience could understand it and they really did. It got three screenings there, it was great. We then brought it to Sheffield - an English audience got it. There was a very different reaction to it - it was still positive but they looked at it more politically. Where on the North American side they are more interested in the person.”

“We then brought it to Galway which was really important to bring it to Ireland. I think it was a great reception there. I imagine we'll do a few more. We showed it in Belfast which was quite nerve racking but it went fairly well. That was a robust Q and A. Hopefully it does well in the cinemas and afterward it will get to TV.  Then we’ll look at potential streaming platforms.”

Element Distribution releases ‘I, Dolours’ nationwide this Friday, August 31st, 2018.

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