Tuesday 20 February 2018

Even the manliest men have mammies - director Ken Wardrop

'His & Hers' film-maker Ken Wardrop takes his gift for getting others to gab to ­Oklahoma for his latest ­documentary

Ken Wardrop says his latest project started out as a film called Men in Uniform. Photo: Mark Condren
Ken Wardrop says his latest project started out as a film called Men in Uniform. Photo: Mark Condren

Aine O'Connor

When I apologise in advance to Ken War­d­rop, telling him I'm not totally with the programme today, he assures me it is no problem, he'll do all the talking. He is a man of his word and it is easy to see how this award-winning documentary maker has put so many people at ease in his films.

From the 70 Irish women who spoke about the men in their lives for His & Hers to the 20 men and their mothers who talk so candidly in Wardrop's latest doc, Mom & Me, he manages to extract and collate details that paint extraordinary emotional pictures.

In 2010, His & Hers, the director's collection of mothers, daughters, wives, lovers and widows of all ages talking about the men in their lives, had such appeal for audiences that it became Ireland's highest grossing documentary. It was fascinating and funny and familiar. It was also a great ode to love.

His next project, Mom & Me, is quite different, but it too is an ode to love and features 20 very different men in Oklahoma talking about and to their mothers about their relationships. From a prisoner who regrets the pain he caused to his mother, to a son facing into his mother's diagnosis with Alzheimer's and her hope that he will marry and have children while she is still well enough to know, once more what seems deceptively simple proves to be insightful and affecting. It did, however, start out as a very different project.

"It started out as a film called Men in Uniform", Ken explains. "It was going to be a study of how the mother figure influences masculinity. I used men in uniform because I thought, 'What is quintessentially masculine?' but as I developed the idea - I thought it was going to be too academic. What I like is the nitty gritty of relationships, and I enjoy that challenge of getting people comfortable in front of the camera. I enjoy meeting people, I enjoy the conversations that you have." He was also determined to move from the comfort zone of Ireland to the US.

Whilst he likes to construct his documentaries around real emotion, he does construct them quite deliberately. "I do ask people to walk from there to there but I never put words in people's mouths."

The idea around which he wanted to construct this film was a radio talk show. Via the internet, he happened upon Joe Cristiano, a New Yorker who made Ken think of "a Woody Allen-esque scenario. Then I found out he had fallen in love with a woman about 25 years ago and moved to Tulsa in Oklahoma!"

By happy coincidence Oklahoma had recently been voted the Manliest State in the Union so with a few boxes ticked, they set about finding the men around whom to base the film. "We wanted an absolute cross-section of men, what is a manly man after all? So we would find towns, think of places where men might gather, like a barbershop, and make a cold call. 'Hello, I'm calling from Ireland....'" As they began to find subjects, one might lead to another, ideas growing from conversations.

Although some of the conversations between mothers and sons were pretty much what Ken expected, he was on occasion surprised. In one understated conversation, a man in his thirties tells his mother he never knew she loved him. She is clearly surprised to hear this for the first time.

"I was really glad that happened," he says. "I think it was cathartic, I don't know if the mum would see it like that but I think afterwards, when the dust settles, there is a lot of healing in a relationship like that." You can't heal if you don't know.

"We were strangers in these people's worlds, they had no context for us, and I think it opens them more. It's an opportunity. The gentleman whose mother had Alzheimer's, he really wanted to do it. So did Mum. I suppose they knew the journey they were about to go on and were dealing with the pain." He has found that for some people, saying something to a third party is easier than directly to each other.

One of the interesting things about the film is that it shows that the concept of the controlling mammy is certainly not just Irish. Some of the ladies really felt they had permission/rights over even grown men. Ken found too that the humour, so often present in the Irish dynamic, was missing. "With the Irish mammy there's great camaraderie, slagging and joking is part of the process. You don't really get that so much in the US."

However, what is clear is that the mother-son relationship is a kind of love affair. "One of the things, if you share your mother with two other brothers like I do, you would have a jealousy that their relationship is different." Graduating from film school at 30, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do, he had grown up in Portarlington in a close and happy farming family and has very much enjoyed documenting them in his short films, his 2004 graduation film, Undressing My Mother, did very well. He doesn't have children himself and says: "You wouldn't be human if you didn't think about the potential of that, maybe that's driving me more than I think."

He has heard it said that he's "hung up on the mammy thing" but he feels the death of his father was in a way more formative.

"It coincided with me becoming a film-maker and to this day, nothing has hit me or my world so hard. If anything, my relationship with my father was much more complicated and difficult, and if he was still alive, potentially I could have been doing another film."

Mom & Me opens nationwide July 15

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