by Walter Chaw There are some things that horror does better than any other genre. At its best, there's no equal to its ability to surf the zeitgeist, to reflect what a culture fears and offer proximate and ultimate exorcisms. Aislinn Clarke's The Devil's Doorway is an intensely personal piece that works as metaphor in a few broad sociological conversations, covering the continued atrocity of the Catholic Church's systemic protection of predators among its ranks in addition to the broader tradition of male control over and exploitation of a woman's sexuality. Set in 1960, it even riffs, extra-textually, on that year's revolution in cinema, which saw the release of uncomfortable, status-disturbing pictures like Psycho, Eyes Without a Face, Peeping Tom, Jingoku, Caltiki: The Immortal Monster, and Black Sunday. Jung had this idea that if you repress something hard enough and for long enough, it becomes monstrous eventually and explodes into the consciousness. The 1950s were a pressure cooker in many ways, and 1960 was the release. The Devil's Doorway is a release, too, in that it confronts directly and indirectly Ireland's dark Magdalene Laundry/Asylum legacy whilst seeking, in the person of a world-weary (doubting) Father Thomas, to make some sort of peace at last with our complicity in the machineries of oppression. Whatever the priest's non-Pyrrhic spoils, they're hard-won and long-in-coming.
AISLINN CLARKE: I think even at the time I was very of aware that it was influencing the tone of the film and he--well, let's see, my father's end came very quick. He had ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. A lot of people live with that for years and years and years but he went, I think it was five months from diagnosis to death. It was really quick for him. It was in the way it presented. It went for his breathing apparatus first. As the script was being written I already knew that he was dying. He wasn't able to really communicate anymore. He died the week before we went into pre-production and then everything was really contracted on the film. We were in pre-production for a couple of weeks and then it was straight into the shoot so the whole was very... It was good for me at the time because I was really busy and I wanted to be really busy.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I recognized Father Thomas immediately. I instantly related to him and it was related, I think, to the loss of my own father.
There's definitely a lot of my father in that character--my father was very Catholic, in his latter years maybe especially. I think he struggled with it, he never really talked about it but I think he struggled with faith a lot over the course of his life. He would have always called himself Catholic but he said some things in his life that I practically verbatim had Father Thomas say. My dad had a lot of conflict that he didn't fully communicate and then towards the end of his life he lost the ability to communicate. He couldn't physically because of his disease, but it also affected him neurologically I think. He always had his faith but the relationship was a tenuous thing sometimes. There was a lot of fear. He was afraid of dying, I think, and Father Thomas's character was me exploring parts of my father's personality that I'd never had the chance to talk to him about, that we'd never really conversed about: his fear, his doubt. Lolar is such a brilliant actor, he really got all of that--he got what I was trying to do with that character: the tone and vibe. He had this beautiful vulnerability and that was very important for me.
He's an unusual male hero.
Yes, a lot of male heroes in film tend to be--they're in some ways like cardboard, they're not real, they don't have enough vulnerability, and my experience of the men who have been heroes in my life is that they do have, actually, quite a lot of vulnerability and there's no shame in acknowledging that. Its healthy and good and human. I'm not a practicing Catholic at all by any stretch, but my father gave me his rosary just before he died and I carried it in my pocket on the set every day. I think I just felt that he was--not that he was there with me, but I felt if I could just remember a little bit of his character that that would help me get through it.
It was your dad who introduced you to horror.
Oh yes, he was a massive horror fan, so in the end--as he got older that was the thing that we would do together is watch horror films. More than that, we would read horror stories, he'd tell me old horror stories that he'd heard in his childhood. I would have really liked him to... He wasn't capable of really understanding towards the end of his life what I was doing. By the time the film was happening he couldn't really take it in and he never knew and I just feel like it would have been nice--I think he would have been proud. I'll never know, I can only assume that he would've been. But it's a shame, you know, when you're doing things you think they would've enjoyed.
How did you get to that point? I know you eventually studied script-writing in New York.
Yeah, I studied film and visual arts and spent time on a project, a short documentary in my mid-20s for Irish television that was broadcast several times, before being picked up by a production company to come work with them making documentaries, but ultimately doing general production stuff and research and things like that. I ended up thinking that television wasn't the right thing for me and, more, I wasn't making films anymore. I started out making films there, but eventually I was doing a lot of other stuff. So I went to New York for a screenwriting diploma, then came back and did a masters in screenwriting.
The sound design in The Devil's Doorway is immersive and inventive--was that informed by your work in theatre?
I was writing radio scripts at the time I was doing my script-writing masters, so we were covering radio, theatre, television, the whole thing and I was experimenting with radio plays sort of just for fun. I started doing live stage versions of old radio plays that became very popular. We toured all over the place doing that and in the middle of that I sort of got entranced by sound design and sound installation: audio theatre in general. This led to installations in museums and things like that but also sound installations for live audiences in various theatre spaces. Some were site-specific, for example we did a piece in an old Victorian asylum here in Northern Ireland. It was actually still a functioning mental health facility of some sort but it was built in the 1880's or thereabouts. We did a piece there to help the local community, to help them think of the history of this massive, looming structure that kind of overshadows the town, you know. We did stuff that had a social purpose along with other stuff we just sort of enjoyed doing. We did adaptations of Brief Encounter on stage, Dial M for Murder, some other original productions. In between all of this was actual radio broadcast work including for BBC Radio 3 and 4. That's how I met my husband, actually. But eventually, anyway, I thought this is all fun but I'm not making film and so I reset, made a few shorts, and here we are.
The Devil's Doorway obviously deals in a non-documentary way with the Magdalene Asylum/Laundries. Tell me about the concerns and the opportunities involved with approaching this topic in this way.
About ten years ago--a little more than that now around 2005, I was researching a documentary about the Laundry and spoke to a lot of people who had been in the laundries or born in them and [were] still trying to find their mothers. We spent a lot of time collecting people's stories and so on but for whatever reason it didn't end up happening. I'd already been aware of the laundries because my mother had a friend that was taken once. I think that was maybe my earliest memory. Being told about that or overhearing her talk to someone about it, her best friend, who was essentially dragged off the street into the back of a priest's car to be taken to a new place, never to be seen again. And really the only thing that she had done--essentially these were girls who had sinned in some way--but all she had done was, her mother had died and father remarried and didn't want to take his whole family, so the kids were parcelled out.
And your father was a bread man who delivered to a laundry...
He often talked about how it was just horrible. He had to go in there. He felt so sorry for the girls. So clearly overworked and it was hot and unpleasant to be in there and the steam and these girls with their red faces and chapped hands. It was a vision of Hell.
You recreate this vision in the film.
I do, yeah, it's stuck with me. I think you know, I myself had a son when I was 17. This was in 1997, which is just one year after the last Magdalene Laundry closed in Ireland, so we're not talking about ancient history. There are women in their forties who lived in those places. It's a recent cultural memory. So when one of the producers came to me with a one-page idea: a found footage film in a Laundry, modern day, and an exorcism--I... I didn't think modern day, I felt like that was sidestepping the real drama that was a part of it and also I worried about found footage, that there's so much of it and a lot of it's not very good and just because there's so much of it that's produced, people send to skim past it. So I thought, if you're going to do found footage, if you want to do found footage, do period found footage. So let's do the 1960s, the height of the Laundries' "power," and let's do 16mm. It would set it apart aesthetically and more importantly to me, it will get to the real drama of these places at their peak. So that's kind of the genesis of the creation of the sound design. I think you're right. I think I learned a lot from my radio and theatre days about what you show and don't show and what you can--how much story you can tell that isn't on screen with sound. Sound design can play a major role in propelling narratives. The whole world can be populated off the screen. That's something that I learned along the way.
It seems almost an "emotional" documentary.
I was very conscious--it was impossible for me to think or write about this area without being conscious, you couldn't do it in a way that you weren't making a comment. If you tried to completely ignore the issues, you still make a comment about it and the comment would be that you didn't care. You have to engage with it intelligently in some way. I felt like there was no other way to do it--and it's something that I wanted to do. My main aesthetic reference for the film was the work of the Maysles brothers, so I wasn't thinking of any genre films at all, but of cinema vérité documentaries of the early-'60s. Those were the ethos and aesthetics I was going for. My background in documentary did inform the film in some way though that wasn't conscious at the time, but certainly it was there. In particular, I modeled the film on Salesman, it was the one I watched most closely and the film was going to be black and white so I was thinking about that in terms of lighting, but it was kind of a more general aesthetic. The Maysles were the main reference.
I was intrigued by you setting the film in 1960. 1960 was a watershed year for horror films.
I do recall considering how the '60s meant change in the world in so many ways, socially, politically, and culturally. 1960 was certainly a cusp year for most of the world. In Ireland things were a little bit different. What the '60s meant for a lot of the rest of the world didn't materialise in Ireland, a very conservative country that was slow to change. It was, however, the year that Edna O'Brien's Country Girl was published--and promptly censored. This landmark Irish novel was perhaps symptomatic of a swelling undercurrent of revolt more in line with our American and British cousins. The decade was a transformative one for Ireland, albeit in a different way to the rest of the western world. 1961 saw the beginning of our national broadcaster, RTE. Later in the '60s the civil rights marches began. Later again 'The Troubles' kicked off in earnest. Eventually the decade saw the end of censorship in Ireland. 1960 is indeed an interesting year in the context, and there is of course Vatican II just on the horizon. It was a watershed year for Ireland in its own peculiar way.
"Moral courage should make us weary, not hopeless. That was probably me channelling my father again. He used to tell us to 'tell the truth and shame the Devil.'"
You talked about the one-page treatment you started with, and you addressed the period aspect and the technical aspect. What about the pitfalls surrounding subject, the laundries themselves?
I always wanted to do something with laundries but I think that I really want to get at the heart of the human drama and I think horror is a good medium for that. But you have to be very, very careful that you're not--in any way--being exploitative. That was always my priority. I do not want to exploit the victims here. I want to uphold the integrity of their abuse in these places, the sexism and sadism, and I want to be very clear about what I'm saying.
Problematic, to say the least.
Yeah, I thought it potentially really problematic. Possession films can, if you're not careful, be about the exploitation of this kind of subjugation of women's sexuality--especially young women in the context of the Laundries, they were all about repressing young female sexuality--controlling it, owning it. It would have to be handled very delicately, because if you have Satan possessing a young girl and then you have priests flinging holy water at her and she's possessed by the Devil, it's like--wait, what are you saying? Potentially very problematic. So I tried to handle that in such a way that I was not making any type of judgement about Kathleen's character...
Did you succeed?
I hope so. It doesn't really matter what I think, but for me, Kathleen's not necessarily possessed at all, it could be something like the opposite of that. That there is something supernatural going on with her--dark forces that are interested in her--but she could be like a Virgin Mary character. And then there's an irony there of you being held in an institution with Virgin Mary statues everywhere and the Virgin Mother: this is a female character we're meant to cherish--what all Catholic women aspire to. Kathleen is a good person, she's innocent and she hasn't done anything to deserve her situation and yet she's being treated like an animal. And so, for me, it's--in my head it's a little more complex than a straight possession film.
Just the idea of "laundries" suggests a kind of purity that becomes ironic in this context.
In terms of the Magdalene Laundries the metaphor is quite straightforward. For the church it is that you wash away your sins. You wash the sheets and you know, you wash away your sin--wash away literal black marks, if you understand me, but yeah, the reality is that they were profit-making institutions, that girls were doing laundry for hotels, for example, for restaurants, and that profit was being made and they were not being paid. They were a place where you could go and do some hard labour and make amends for the terrible sins that you've committed, but the reality is that you didn't have to commit any sins at all to end up in one of these places. And that once there, you were essentially enslaved under the guise of salvation.
All the water is holy.
Did this film need to be made from a female perspective?
You know, as we were in production my mother-in-law--who I was very close to--was also dying and she died at just as we were wrapping. These two people, my father and my mother-in-law, who were very close to me, both died suddenly, unexpectedly. So, yeah, I always remembered filming within that frame--those two deaths--and I think they're both definitely present... I haven't really spoken about the perspective of the film before, but I considered whether a story of this patriarchal society should be told from a female perspective and how to give the Magdalene girls a voice. However, the truth was that, at the time, there simply wasn't one for them. They certainly wouldn't have been the ones to document this event--the church had the power and controlled the discourse. I did think that it was important to show how the priests--the men of the film--could use their voices. No individual in Ireland had the power to change anything themselves, but they each had the chance to face that horrible lie. So the film is about how these men--with what power they have--respond to the revelation of this horror. Do they take some action, any action, no matter how futile? Or do they stay silent?
During the Repeal debate, for example, a lot of men talked about how it wasn't their place to say anything on something they considered a women's issue, but the vote was won through convincing them to listen and act on conscience. That's why I wanted to show my male heroes being vulnerable--they don't know all the answers and they can't solve everything, but they can still choose the right things. That's what courage is. That's heroism. Moral courage should make us weary, not hopeless. That was probably me channelling my father again. He used to tell us to "tell the truth and shame the Devil." While there is no Devil and there are no ghosts, everything in the film is true and I wanted to come from the perspective of men determined to tell the truth. At several screenings I have had men approach me and say that they felt warm towards Father Thomas, in one case a young man said that he felt comforted when he was onscreen. That Father Thomas reminded him of his own father. I think this is a good thing. He is a relatable and likeable male hero who is vulnerable, who is gentle, and who is taking very seriously issues which could be written off as "women's issues."
Let's talk about the Repeal. Even with it, I know that Northern Ireland still has an abortion ban, and that the Irish government and Catholic Church still have not apologized for the abuses of the laundries.
I think you're correct in that it's a tragedy that they're hoping goes away. In the meantime, an acknowledgement about all of the terrible things--and that's a whole spectrum of things, from sexual abuse to terrible medical procedures that were performed on women and children, most of the time women without their consent or even knowledge, lifelong disabling procedures... There's all sorts of things, and all within the last century, we're not talking about. There are many people alive today whose lives have been destroyed and who've been overlooked. Everything is sidestepped, there's never been a proper apology, there's never been proper acknowledgement. And I think that--with things like Repeal the Eighth, the temperature is changing in this country.
Do you think so?
There's a lot of people who are, maybe up to thirty now who are a lot more liberal than their parents might've been. It's a very traditional, a very Catholic country. With things like Repeal going through, liberal young people are now the majority. The temperature is changing and I think it's inevitable that it will get to the point where the Church will have to make an apology. They will have to. This generation is not as malleable as the last generation. Y'know, in my grandmother's day, at every single child she had--and being a Catholic woman, she had a lot of them--she would have to go to the priest after she gave birth and kneel down and be blessed and forgiven for having had a baby because that meant that you had sex and that was terrible. So before you were allowed to go back to Mass you had to do that and it was called "being churched." And people would go along with it, the husband didn't have to do it, it was just the wife. There are things like that that young people are not going to tolerate anymore. And the Church is going to have to face up to that. There's been a lot of slipping around it and no former apology. I believe money should be awarded to attempt to compensate for lives stolen away and children taken and for what they went through. But what's lost is lost and can never be changed... (long pause) It's just been brushed aside and I think that's no longer good enough.
So we come back around to the question of horror and what this film adds to the conversation.
I have long been compelled by Roger Ebert's description of cinema as "a machine that generates empathy." I think that, when it comes to delineating types of horror films or the good and bad things horror films can do, I consider whether the film is trying to 'other' somebody or something or if it's trying to understand a fear by making us empathise. The same is true in the sort of documentaries I was thinking about, too: does it exploit the subject or does it empathise? For me, it was important for me to make the audience empathise with the girls--it may surprise that Ireland hasn't always done so. I also wanted people to understand the clergy, too: it wasn't just about villainizing the church--these were individuals dealing with their position in a huge machine, a machine of free labour that held up the economy of a poor country and the power of weak people. The way in which documentaries generate empathy is through the still close-up: looking people straight in the eyes. I knew the film had to take advantage of that element of the documentary/found-footage constraint and so a lot of the screen-time is given over to close-ups, confessions, and admissions. The audience has to look the characters in the eye as they say these things and the actors are so strong that we really believe them. We can't look away from the situation, as we did for decades, we've got to look head-on.
When you talk about this, I think of all the times that you stop moving your camera.
This really comes together for me in the birth scene--the standard found-footage moment would have been to take in all the action and movement in a blur, but I chose to put down the camera, fixed on the girl's face so that, no matter what's going on outside the shot, we have to look at her eyes, at the pain. She knows the camera is there and is imploring us to help. Of course, we can't. That goes back to my first year of film studies: Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, then Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie watching that image on the screen--a machine that generates empathy.
I think of this, and films like this, as a means potentially of collective exorcism. Horror has that potential to unsettle rather than "issue dramas" that tend to reassure.
I've always been a big horror fan. I think horror films are unfairly maligned. I don't know for sure, but I would put a good lock of money on a bet that for as long as humans have been telling each other stories, certainly for as long as we have records of stories, that they've been telling dark stories, things that are essentially horror stories, because they teach us about life and help us understand about the world around us. They help us unpack real-life trauma and understand the world around us. In a way they help us to learn how to survive. I think that's always been the case. We keep hearing the term now about "elevated horror," people keep acting like we're suddenly making good horror films where they never did it before. People who do this are people who don't watch horror films. Horror fans and particularly people who are fans of cinema in general, know that there have always been good horror films.. Horror can never be good because anything that is good is taken out of genre and put into a new, "reputable" category. It's bizarre to me.
You have such a broad foundation in the arts, what were your influences outside of the medium?
I do tend to look towards visual art--maybe even before I think about other films when I'm thinking about a film and how to handle it, but Odilon Redon, a kind of gothic artist, a lot of shadows and concentrated light, eerie imagery. A sense of cloistered secrets. I was looking at those images. French, 19th century. I remember looking at those paintings a lot and using those as visual references for the DP. And in terms of literature, stuff like Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk: The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life, where someone from within leaks the juicy material of what's been going on in here. Catholic kind of Gothic Catholic stuff, I was bringing in. I do tend to take from a wide variety of things. A reference that hasn't come up before and that I've never discussed with anyone is Charles Beaumont's "The Howling Man," adapted for "The Twilight Zone" in--you guessed it--1960. In that, a traveller arrives in a monastery, where the monks are holding the Devil behind bars, yet the Devil makes a good case of presenting himself as the victim so that the traveller can release him. I wanted Kathleen to have that persuasive ambiguity, too--possibly diabolical, possibly divine. Possible villain, possible victim. That's how the feminine was held up in Irish society then: women were both things at once, treasure and temptation. That's the Catholic mindset, two things at the same time--Jesus is God and man fully, Mary is Virgin and mother. In theory, it isn't troubling, but when it comes to practice--for both the nuns and the priests--it doesn't work. They have to make a decision about how they categorize her and what they will do with her.
I'd argue that men view women pretty much the same way today--and it still doesn't work in practice. Our views are entrenched.
People that are staunch Catholics who don't want to hear about the laundries or stolen babies or things like that are the real issue, yeah? People don't like having their comfort challenged, they just don't want to engage with that. Life is too challenging as it is without having to engage in difficult issues. I think horror to some extent--the horror that speaks to social issues--it kind of forefronts things and demands you think. A lot of people don't want to do that. They want to live in peace and comfort.
I watched your film the day the AG of Pennsylvania laid out a damning critique of the Catholic Church's legacy of sexual abuse and protecting predators.
I think these issues are still very much... Every time something new crops up there's some kind of half-hearted apology, a pat on the head, and people think that it's just going to disappear, but it's always something else and something else and something else. I'd like to believe that we're coming to some moment where we can put it all behind us, you know, but maybe that's just my naivety that we're ever getting to that point. I should say that when I'm critical of these things it's not Catholicism that I am critical of, but rather in particular the Catholic Church and state structure here in Ireland, which enabled these things to happen. These things could never have been as rampant as they were, or have occurred in such plain sight as they did, if it wasn't for the combination of the Church and state. It has to change. It has to.