independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Keeper of the faith

When Lana Citron wrote a script based on a dream about her seven-year-old self, little did she realise it would become a film with a star-studded cast and crew – nor that a Jewish girl would find herself the star attraction of a Holy Communion story

The church of St Teresa's on Donore Avenue in Dublin was full. The congregation sat pat-iently in the pews, though none were praying. Nothing here was quite what it seemed.

A line of little girls dressed as brides knelt before a priest, and then, belatedly, my young self appeared in a hotch-potch of strange clothes and was chivvied up the flagstone floor by an old crone.

I stood in the shadows, watching myself as a seven-year-old about to receive Holy Communion. A strange enough scenario made all the more peculiar as I happen to be Jewish.

Let me explain. This state of being was a dream, dreamt in a west London apartment. My reality was that of a heavily pregnant woman who had flown in from London and driven straight from the airport to witness the shooting of Hannah Cohen – and, before you jump to the wrong conclusion, there were no guns involved.

Just over a year ago, I stretched and teased an emotional memory to its extreme. It began as a feeling, scribbled out as prose, 300 words capturing an instant of childhood consciousness; a mere moment when a bubble of innocence burst and a step toward adulthood was reluctantly taken.

****

'It is early summer and the shy Irish sun shines. Hannah Cohen sits on a front garden wall.

Bored, she flicks rose petals on the pavement when suddenly she sees her best friend Roisin dressed in Holy Communion finery. Roisin looks beautiful,

like a real princess'

****

If only Hannah could have her own Holy Communion. If only that were possible. But, of course, when one is seven and a bit, everything is possible, and so began our film, 'Hannah Cohen's Holy Communion'.

I wonder if one ever truly leaves one's country of birth. Almost 20 years on and still I keep a constant backward glance, a toe wedged in the door.

In October 2011, I sent Irish film director Shimmy Marcus a script in progress. He promptly emailed it back pointing out the gaping holes within. Undeterred, I set to rethinking, fixing and cementing.

Ironically, as I worked on this embryonic script, a renegade cluster of cells was dividing and subdividing inside me, an inner foetal production.

Over the next three months, two stories developed in tandem. Scripts sent to Shimmy returned to my inbox with notes, questions and red crosses until finally the story began to breathe. Still, I had yet to convince him to direct it. There was an upcoming funding competition. Would he consider directing if I were to enter the script?

"Funding," he groaned, "is such a huge gamble." Nevertheless, we took a chance. The dice rolled and we hit the jackpot, winning the Pears Foundation Award.

This was a huge tick, a massive confidence boost, but it only provided half the money. There was also a time factor and we were beholden to complete the film – ie produce, cast, shoot and edit it – by August 2012. This would be no small feat.

Nails were bitten, meetings met and sponsors sought, to whom we are forever grateful.

Fast forward to June 2012 and there I was, the mother of two green- lit productions. On the home front, my inner production had grown exponentially.

By now eight months pregnant, my bump was proving an impediment and entailed three visits to the doctor just to secure a permit to travel.

During the flight, I half expected to swell beyond recognition or, worse-case scenario, blow-up.

I didn't expand – instead, I started spinning. See, it began to reverse, all the way across the Irish Sea to

touch down in the mid-1970s to where I then found myself, in my realised imagination.

St Teresa's is a pretty church. I entered round the back, having spotted some film types, passed through a makeshift wardrobe department and then the main part of the church.

On the technical side, there were crew, cast, extras, a vast amount of equipment, tracks, monitors, booms, mics, lights, camera and 'action'.

'Hannah approaches the alter to join her friends, who look at her wide-eyed. 'What are you doing here?' one mouths as she kneels down alongside them.'

This present scene was played out in short bursts of controlled takes. I looked at the star of the film, transfixed.

In truth, I was never this Dublin Jewish girl. By the time the script ripened there was scarcely any personal residue left.

Our star was the radiant six-year-old Lucy Sky Dunne. She had taken the story from me and lived it, while I, the writer loitered in the background. Then, the priest approached her. Mind, this was not just any priest; as the ad goes, this was the M&S of all priests.

Jim Sheridan, Irish director of films such as 'My Left Foot', 'In the Name of the Father' and 'The Field' was playing the priest in our film. Yes, the Jim Sheridan. There was magic in the air, for sure. Let's face it, not every scriptwriter can claim to have a six-time Oscar nominee director feature in their short.

We – Jim and I – chatted briefly in front of the monitor watching out-takes, or rather my cheeks burning as I tried to remain cool, attempting the most inane conversation. But the fact is I'm not cool, and I was in awe.

Dublin is small and I recognised the wonderful Marion O'Dwyer, who acted in one of my BBC Radio 4 plays, and then Gareth Keogh, with whom I acted a zillion years ago. And then I noticed my blue 1970s nylon housecoat – a present from my teenage son. I had sent it to the director as an example of what the mother could wear, and, indeed, she was wearing it.

She was Elaine Cassidy, award-winning actress and leading lady in the American CBS TV series 'Harper's Island', 'Felicia's Journey' and 'Disco Pigs'. You'd also recognise her from the recent BBC Drama, 'The Paradise'.

Blessed by a stellar cast and crew, I gave thanks. For some reason, this film seems to have struck a universal chord – the support for it has been phenomenal.

Despite the funding award, we were operating on a shoestring. Despite the shoestring, the production levels were incredibly high.

Dublin had changed so much since I left. Then again, since I left, Dublin had hardly changed.

Our next location was the home I grew up in. A 1970s dreamscape, it was now the home of others but, luckily for us, it remained untouched. The cast and crew loved it. The kitchen in particular was in its original wood-panelled, marble-counter-topped glory.

This was a glimpse of a rarely seen middle-class Dublin. The road is lined with blossom trees, the Dublin mountains loom in the background, the houses, large hacienda styled, lie anchored between generous front and rear gardens.

Hanging out in the now neglected and overgrown back garden, I noticed the bird song, loud and varied, was more lyrical than the London tweeters. Time marches at a different pace here; the air is fresher, the light translucent, the surrounding sky immense.

I floated as a ghost around the house, now full of unknown people, revealing traces of my childhood to my partner who had joined me on the trip, especially the secret attics behind the wardrobes – hidden alcoves installed by my father, God forbid there was ever an Irish anti-Semitic uprising.

A few days later, a 'wrap' was called. On our last night, I sat with Shimmy in a hotel bar, sipping a whiskey and Coke. Due to my condition, I could not manage very much and it occurred to me that, these days, my glass was always half-full.

It was then that Shimmy mentioned the Golden Globe-nominated composer Brian Byrne had agreed to score the film. I nearly choked on the news. Yes, that Brian Byrne who has since been awarded two World Soundtrack Awards.

Correction: my glass wasn't half-full at all. It was overflowing.

'Hannah Cohen's Holy Communion' will be screened on Friday, February 22, at 6pm, at the Light House

Cinema as part of the

Jameson Dublin Film Festival.

As for the other production, the belly popped on July 17, 2012, and with it the arrival of a 7lb and 3oz boy

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