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Jim Sheridan • Director

“We all have to live together”


- Irish director Jim Sheridan, whose film, The Secret Scripture, screened at the Rome Film Fest, sat down with Cineuropa to discuss child abuse, church and the climate of our society

Jim Sheridan • Director
(© Birgit Heidsiek / Cineuropa)

At the 11th edition of the Rome Film Fest, Irish writer-director-producer Jim Sheridan presented his movie The Secret Scripture [+see also:
interview: Jim Sheridan
film profile
, which stars Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave. Based on the novel by Sebastian Barry, the film reveals the story of an old woman who has lived in a psychiatric hospital for over fifty years. As a doctor finds out, she was put there by a mad priest who was jealous that she had been falling in love with fighter pilot.          

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Cineuropa: Your film is about a young mother whose child has been taken away by the church during World War II. Do you know any people to whom this actually happened?
Jim Sheridan: Yes, my mother had a bed and breakfast where she used to take people in. I met a lot of people who were abused and had been taken away from their mothers as children. When the British left Ireland, they basically took away all the poor houses so that there was no infrastructure left for a civil service and no administration. So the church took over control of all that, and became very powerful, corrupt and abusive. During that time, resources were very precious, so if a woman fell pregnant, it meant that there was another mouth to feed, and if there was no father or family structure, they considered that child as a demon from hell. It was what the church was most afraid of, and so they punished that as much as they could.

Was any legal action being taken?
Yes, a lot of bodies of children who had been buried were recently discovered. The legal procedure starts now. The problem is actually that, if all the people who were abused are to receive compensation, you would be paying for another thousand years – there was just so much of it going on. On the brighter side, though, a lot of the children got very good families, mostly in the US. But, frequently, the religious nuns would draw up two birth certificates; one for a child that went and one for a child that stayed, and so sometimes there were two children with the same name. But the nuns were convinced that what they were doing was right.

Was it really that easy to put somebody in a psychiatric institute at that time?
I know a woman who was put into a mental asylum during the Second World War, just like in the movie. She was put in there because she went to England and lost her nerve. When she came home she was a bit edgy. Her mother put her into a mental asylum and she didn’t get out until 1980. She was there for over 40 years. That is what I changed from the novel, because I wanted the film to have some back story that I knew personally. There were a lot of cases like this.

How is Irish society dealing with this nowadays?
There is an awareness of what went on, but people don’t like to talk about it, because it is shameful for a society. Michael Clemenger wrote the book Holy Terror, about how he was abused by the Christian brothers on Wednesdays and Sundays, which was not of much interest in Ireland. But in England, where they published it under the title Everybody Knew, it was among the top three bestsellers.

Was it difficult to finance this movie?
We got the money from ten different sources, such as private investors, TV, and some money from the US and Europe. I have produced a few of my movies, such as In the Name of the Father, The Boxer and In America, but it is very tough to do both. So I produced this film together with Noel Pearson, the producer of My Left Foot.

What will your next project be?
I just finished a ten-minute short film, The Eleventh Hour, with Salma Hayek, which is about 9/11 and I’m currently editing that. I hope that we can bring it out before the election. It is not a political movie; it is a gentle film just about being civilised. The message is that we all have to live together.

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