'(io ahead.‘ he says.
Right: 30.000 women and girls lived and died in the Irish Catholic convents known as Magdalene Iaundries (aka ‘(iod's sweatshop' ). slaving away cleaning clothes for the free world. ten hours a day. 364 days a year (they'd get Jesus' birthday
off). tnaking tnoney for the inappropriately natned Sisters of
Mercy who ran the place. The women were locked up. potentially for life attd without parole. for ‘offences‘ ranging
from perceived promiscuity to sex outside marriage (even if intercourse was rape) to illegitimate child birth (both mother
and. later. child could be incarcerated). The Iaundries existed not just in Ireland. but in Scotland throughout the l950s and (Ms. and. unbelievably. the last laundry was closed as recently as l996. The church has yet to formally apologise to the women or offer them compensation.
So. was it a sense of outrage that drove him to make this film about the abuse of these girls by nuns'.’ ‘It was that.‘ says Mullan. who wrote The Magdalene .S'isrers after watching the Channel 4 documentary which detailed the plight of the Magdalene women. Sex in a Cold Climate. ‘But personally it goes back to the oppression. I've come to the conclusion I kinda knew how those girls felt. In my case it was in the home lMuIlan was born into a Catholic household in I954]. I just knew how it felt to have someone hovering over you. like a huge. dark sky. And yet the door was wide open: you could go anytime you wanted. In theory.‘ he qualifies. ‘And yet. there's no place to fucking go. y‘know. I think that's where it comes from. I think that‘s why it got to me so deeply.‘
One of the key scenes in The Magdalene Sisters. in fact the very first scene that came into his head. features one of the three central teenage girls stumbling across a door to the outside world. left open by accident. The inmate walks through it. onto a country lane. A car pulls tip and a young man asks the girl if she needs a lift somewhere. She declines and walks back into the convent.
‘It was vital in the film that it was always much. tnuch tnore than a physical continement.‘ says Mullan. ‘It was a mental and emotional continement.‘
Unsurprisingly. the church hasn‘t reacted well to The Magdalene Sisters. When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year. it won praise from the critics and the Golden Lion award frotn the festival. but was denounced by the Vatican (a Vatican Radio broadcast announced: ‘This isn‘t a truthful portrayal of the church.‘) Mullan. however. is unrepentant. ‘The argument that the film's prejudiced because there's no good nun in it. I do think is bollocks.‘ he says. ‘For the very simple reason that no good nun would exist in these places. For the purposes of business. if you‘re gonna tell these girls to work for ten hours a day for 364 days a year. you‘re not gonna want a nice nun going around saying: “It's OK girls. have a lie in. Take the afternoon off." You want the heavy mob in there. and that's what you got.‘
Elsewhere. Mullan has said that he’d like to think the Catholic church would admit its mistakes. compensate the victims and ensure it would never happen again. Bttt he doesn‘t blame it all on the church; surprisingly. considering his evident love of film. he also blames cinema.
‘Cinema also contributed to these girls‘ continement.‘ he
With Phil McCal
22 THE LIST 13—27 Feb 2003
Theatre‘s 1988 pr uction of i Hector MacMillan‘s T e Funeral
SOMEONE HOVERING OVER YOU, LIKE A HUGE DARK SKY'
says. ‘The Hollywood machine is what ntade me a Catholic. tnuclt tnore than any priest I ey er met. The Song ot'lfemudeue. Boy-M ’Iim'n. (ioing my Ilirv. I grew up with those films. they were the Sunday afternoon films your parents didn’t object to. In fact. they actually sat down and watched them with you. And those were my ideals for the Catholic church.‘
While no Ilollyw'ood spokesperson has followed the Vatican's lead attd denounced 'I'lie .llugtlulene Sisters. the film is full of little in-jokes. little digs at cinema. I-‘or e\ample. during the one day off work the Magdalene girls get. they are shown a movie. The Bells oI'SI .Ilmjv's. starring Bing Crosby as a loveable lrislt father and Ittgrid Bergman as a sweet ttun. ‘I-‘rom day one.‘ Mullan says. ‘I was determined to get in in a comedic. not heavy-handed kind of way that cinema. the thing you are in. the tltittg you are watching. also contributed to the conspiracy against these young women. It's not just church. state and family. It‘s major propaganda. I mean. imagine if you were a priest and you're doing your day-to-day
job and Spencer Tracy comes along and there he is in lfovs'
'Iow'n. If you were a priest watching that at that time itttagitte the kind of lift that would give you: "My (lod. I'm being played by someone who‘s still now recognised as one of the great all-time movie stars.'"
()rp/tmts was a fairly harrowing film. bttt liglttened (if that‘s the rigltt term) by black comedy. More difficult. however. is to notice the wealth of in-jokes in the also harrowing zl/Iugtlulene. But they're there. ‘()h. aye.‘ Mullan says. ‘there's loads of wee daft little pieces I put in to keep my brain going.‘ ()ne concerning washing machines wouldn't be out of place iii a David Lynch film (ludicroust ettough. the steel tubs are what finally pttt the hand-scrubbing Iaundries ottt of business). ()h. and there‘s that map of the world in the head sister's office.
‘()h yeah. the big tnap of the world.‘ Mullan says with a slightly self-depreciating lattgh. ‘We were recce-ing the convent [located itt I)umfries. not Ireland. as it turns out] and there was a little Christian group in the chapel and inside there was a tttap of the world. They'd put a piece of paper over the logo of whatever company had produced the ntap and on the paper they‘d written "God". so it was "(iod‘s Map of the World.” Really strange.‘ So strange. Mullan and his cinematographer couldn't resist and set tip a shot illustrating the Sisters of Mercy as a worldwide order.
‘We went from Rio de .laneiro tip to New York. then across to the UK. all around Iiurope and after that we ptit millions of pins in Africa. And I did a whole shot as we travelled. but even as we shot it. it was like: "This is Ittdiana Jones." All it needs.' laughs Mullan. ‘is a nun flying through the fuckittg air. super- imposed on the world. But although the shot was shit. I still like that tnap. To any anoraks who wanna notice it. it was just that sense that the sisters. they're fucking everywhere.‘
Just then the publicist informs us that. regrettably. our time is tip. I look at my interviewee and he shrugs. Then. he turns to the publicist: ‘Can I have another beer. darlin"." Mullan. the wee man with a big rep to live up to. has got another new best pal.
The Magdalene Sisters plays GFI', Glasgow and Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 21 Feb. See review, page 25.
His Palme d'Or award- winning performance in My Name is Joe