Tuesday 25 June 2019

Why have critics ignored Irish couple's top 10 US box office movie hit?

Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer both struggled to get Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer made, but reviewers have ignored it. Donal Lynch reports

Filmmakers Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer get the sand between their toes
Filmmakers Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer get the sand between their toes
Earl Billings in 'Gosnell'

It seems strange that an Irish-made movie, with a major star (Dean Cain, the Clark Kent/Superman star of Lois & Clark) at the helm, could open as one of the top 10 films at the US box office and not generate a murmur of comment in the national press here.

Stranger still, that the same film could be the biggest grossing indie film of the month in America and not even garner reviews in publications like The New York Times.

But then Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer, the first feature from Irish-born wife and husband duo Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, is no ordinary release. In telling the story of Kermit Gosnell, it wades into territory that Hollywood has long been squeamish about.

Gosnell was a Philadelphia-based doctor and abortion provider who was convicted of murdering three infants who were born alive during attempted abortion procedures, and of murdering one woman during an abortion procedure. He was also convicted of dozens of counts of providing abortions far past the legal limit in Philadelphia.

Earl Billings in 'Gosnell'
Earl Billings in 'Gosnell'

The film - directed by Nick Searcy, who plays Gosnell's lawyer, Mike Cohan - heavily leans on a pro-life viewpoint and indicts the mainstream media for losing interest in the Gosnell case after the grand jury report.

During the trial, a journalist snapped a picture of the virtually empty press section that went viral on Twitter, drawing national attention to the virtual media blackout and bringing the case back into the spotlight.

"Nobody wanted to say anything," the investigating police officer sums up as she grasps the enormity of the situation. "Nobody wanted to know."

That line, more than any other, expresses the central theme - which is not so much that abortion is evil, but that the reason the horrors of Gosnell's clinic were allowed to continue year after year is that, when it came to this thorny issue, everyone wanted to look the other way.

McElhinney and McAleer have also been vocal about their private views on the subject; during the abortion referendum they co-wrote a piece for The Irish Times in which they said that the making of the movie had brought them from a feeling of "disinterest" about the subject, to "negative feelings about the procedure".

It's also this emphasis in the storytelling that has seen the film described as "law and order for Christians" and of preaching to the right-wing masses on the issue of abortion. And it's the reason, the couple say, that a mainly liberal mainstream press and the American movie establishment has ignored their success.

"Distributors told us 'it's a great movie but it's too controversial'," McAleer explains on a call from Los Angeles, where he and McElhinney are heavily promoting the movie.

"Facebook blocked our ads. The New York Times had agreed to carry a quarter-page advertisement for the movie but advertising executives demanded the ad be changed to misrepresent the facts after facing pressure from colleagues in the film section.

"We had to use crowdfunding to fund the film. For context, we made a movie a few years ago on fracking, which would also have had what was perceived as a conservative viewpoint, but it was covered across many outlets. People are very one-sided when it comes to abortion. They have had a rom-com where the couple bonded over having (an abortion) and that was fine, but this kind of approach is not as welcome."

In fact, while Gosnell is their first scripted feature (they co-wrote the screenplay), McAleer and McElhinney have long made hay out of baiting American liberals. In 2009, McAleer challenged Al Gore at a public meeting of environmental journalists and was shouted down and escorted out of the room. Since then he and his Donegal-born wife have continued to build their profile in the US, regularly appearing on networks such as CNN and Fox News. In 2013 they released Fracknation, a documentary about "the truth behind the search for natural gas", which raised the hackles of film critics and environmentalists.

Despite their years in the LA sunshine, the couple's lilting brogues are both fully intact. Ann grew up in Bundoran, Co Donegal, where her father ran an estate agent's office and Phelim comes from just outside Omagh, Co Tyrone.

They met in 1994 at the Glenties summer school in Donegal, where Phelim had been working as a journalist - he had covered the Troubles for The Irish News in Belfast. At that point Ann was on a break from working as a schoolteacher. She was having a drink at the bar with a friend when she noticed a man who looked "quite a lot like a terrorist, very unkempt", she told the Sunday Independent. "I knew then he needed taking care of and that I was the person for the job."

The began working together as a journalistic team in 2000. The first story they worked on together concerned Mihaela Porumbaru, the Romanian child, paralysed from the waist down, who was handed back to her Romanian foster parents despite every effort on the part of her Irish carers to keep her here. They would eventually move to America, where they tackled the issue of global warming. Not Evil Just Wrong, their cinematic reply to Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, caused a huge reaction upon its release in 2009 and saw them become in-demand public speakers.

They say that the timing of Gosnell, which has coincided with much of the furore surrounding Brett Kavanaugh being appointed to the US Supreme Court (and the concomitant danger to the seminal abortion precedent, Roe v Wade), is purely coincidental.

"We've been trying to get the film out for three years," McElhinney explains. "And that makes the refusal of much of the media to review the film all the more ludicrous", says McAleer. "Here you have the hottest political topic in America and it's the subject of a successful movie like this, and still they won't touch it - it's pathetic really."

The couple say that working together is rewarding, even if there are "many, shall we say, frank discussions" on how their work will proceed, Ann adds.

Amid all the controversy she is heartened by the response they have seen to the film on the ground.

"The astonishing thing that happens is that people stay until the end of the credits, in complete silence. We've been to so many movies, including last night, where people get up the minute the movie ends, so we're taking that as a good sign."

'Gosnell' goes on general release in Ireland next year

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