Wednesday 29 January 2020

Behind the walls of an Irish prison

Frank Berry's 'Michael Inside' lifts the lid on our penal system. The director tells our film critic how the struggle for authenticity led him to workshopping scripts with a group of former inmates

Director Frank Berry
Director Frank Berry
Reluctant offender: Dafhyd Flynn in the title role as the young prisoner in Michael Inside, directed by Frank Berry
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

We may see better Irish films than Michael Inside this year, but I strongly doubt it. Frank Berry's superb feature is a pared-back, low-budget drama starring Dafhyd Flynn as a young man from a tough Dublin suburb who is reluctantly sucked into the local criminal underworld. Michael McCrea's dad is in prison, but apart from a few juvenile misdemeanours the boy has thus far managed to avoid following in his footsteps.

He has plans for further education, and is going steady with a girl who insists he stays on the straight and narrow. But when a street acquaintance casually asks Michael to mind a bag of cocaine for him, he says yes, a snap decision that will change his life forever. Berry's film follows Michael as he's arrested, arraigned and sent to Mountjoy Prison, where he must figure out the pecking order fast if he's to survive. He flounders until he's taken under the wing of a tough older prisoner (Moe Dunford) who seems like a friend but really isn't.

What's most striking about Michael Inside is its discipline, its grit, its scrupulous avoidance of melodrama: this is social realism in the grand tradition of Ken Loach, and it's been Frank Berry's approach from the very start.

Having studied film at the Dublin Institute of Technology, he spent a decade making community videos before breaking through as a filmmaker with the 2011 documentary Ballymun Lullaby, and his 2014 feature debut I Used to Live Here. In that film, which was essentially a Tallaght community project using amateur actors and shot at weekends, a young man's suicide had cumulative negative repercussions among his family and friends. And it was while making it that Berry stumbled on the idea for Michael Inside.

Reluctant offender: Dafhyd Flynn in the title role as the young prisoner in Michael Inside, directed by Frank Berry
Reluctant offender: Dafhyd Flynn in the title role as the young prisoner in Michael Inside, directed by Frank Berry

"Some of the young people I got to know when I was making that film seemed vulnerable," he tells me, "because they might have left school early, and they weren't doing much, and there was nothing much to do. They didn't necessarily want to be criminals or anything like that, but there were a lot of things happening around them, and it was all too easy for them to get mixed up in it.

"There are loads of depictions of gangland crime in Irish film and television, and just sitting down beside those young people during that period, I felt there was another, less obvious story to be told, because they were in danger of becoming part of the prison population, not because they wanted to be criminals, but because of the environment around them."

As he began his research, Berry contacted the Irish Prison Service, and its director Michael Donnellan put him in touch with Pathways, a support and further education group for former inmates. There he met a cross section of ex-prisoners who would play an essential role in creating his film.

"When I brought this idea to the former prisoners, it really seemed to resonate with them," he says, "in that they all said that there was a single moment where it could have gone either way. Often it was in relation to taking drugs when they were young, but there was always this moment where their lives could have gone in either direction, and whenever we talked about it, they were very enthusiastic about reaching kids to help them avoid making the same mistakes."

Over the next 18 months, Berry worked closely with a group of former prisoners, listening to their experiences and getting their take on the film's narrative.

"When I was working in Pathways, we workshopped the scenes. And though we stuck to a final script when we were shooting, the scripts came out of the workshops. We'd talk about it, then I'd go off and write up scenes, and around this big table we'd have these read-throughs, we'd act them out, and they'd tell me it's a load of crap. They weren't shy!

"But then sometimes they say, 'yeah I've no problem with that scene at all, Frank,' and you'd know it was right. So for me it's always a search for my own confidence, so that I can direct something and feel it could actually happen. In the end, my sole motivation is to achieve realism."

Interestingly, Berry spends as much time exploring the effect of Michael's imprisonment on others as he does on the incarceration itself. Veteran Belfast actor Lalor Roddy delivers a memorable portrayal of Michael's grandfather, Francis, whose worries about his grandson are compounded when he's targeted by the gang whose drugs the boy was hiding.

"We did it with I Used to Live Here, and again here, where the characters that are normally at the centre of the story are off over the hill, and we're over here with somebody who would normally be an extra in that drama, and we're saying well let's tell this story. Michael's granddad has the wisdom and the perspective, he can see what's really going on, and his tragedy is watching his grandson going out the door and not being able to control what happens out there."

After Michael goes to prison, Francis is intimidated by those local hoodlums, who insist he now has a debt to pay. "When I was in Pathways, there was a lot of discussion about family intimidation," Berry explains, "it's a growing problem now, and you'd hear stories about these guys walking into your living room, saying you owe me money, and picking up the TV on the way out the door, and the chilling ordinariness of it. We reflect that in the film, where all these guys need to do is show up at the door to invoke terror."

Violence and gangsterism are never glamorised in Berry's film, which turns away pointedly at vital moments. In the drama's most shocking scene, Moe Dunford's character makes Michael complicit in a brutal attack on another prisoner who won't toe the line. A kettle is filled with sugar and water, and thrown over the poor man's face. "Even during that brutal scene with the kettle," Barry explains, "the camera moves to Michael's face so we're more concerned about how the violence will affect him than actually showing it, you know. We're more interested in how Michael is inside"

If Michael Inside's prison scenes have the ring of truth, that's no coincidence. "I went back to the prison service once the script was ready to ask if there was any chance I could shoot in a prison, and they really wanted to help, but shooting in a working jail would have been really difficult. Then the press officer John McDermott rang me and told me that Cork Prison was just closing down. It was built just 50 years before Mountjoy, and was really similar. It was such a stroke of luck, so we filmed there for two weeks, and it was wonderful to shoot in an empty prison, it was a dream."

The film was completed on a modest budget of €600,000, but doesn't look it. "We had a cinematographer, Tom Comerford, who gave it real class I think, and an amazing team."

His next project, he says, "is a love story set in direct provision - I've been researching it for a year or so, talking to people and getting their side of the story. The research part of the process is the richest part, just that whole voyage of discovery."

He likes other genres, he says, but has always been drawn to social realism. "I think I get a buzz from something that I recognise to be true, it's just something I love in film. In terms of heroes, I guess it's pretty obvious that I like Ken Loach, and I really like the work of Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian film-maker, he's fantastic. And I like all the classics you know, when we were first making this film, we talked about A Man Escaped, the (Robert) Bresson film, there was something very simple about the storytelling in those films, a simple expression of a social theme - they're not interested in the more glamorous dramatisations so much as expressing life experiences."

Michael Inside, meanwhile, has been acclaimed by all who've seen it, which might make it slightly easier for Frank to get that next project made. "Hopefully," he says. "I'm not trying to necessarily climb to bigger budgets, it would be nice in a way, but it's not the most important thing. Being able to make the films that you want is the thing that matters, and I'd like to be able to make better ones, just make them better, and to have made a string of films that perhaps feel connected by the end of it, a sequence of films about the times I lived in." I for one hope Frank Berry gets to make them.

Michael Inside plus a Q&A with director Frank Berry will be held today at the Light House cinema, Dublin from 5.40pm

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