One brick from the house

Peter Mullen (director), 'The Magdalen Sisters', general release

This film by socialist actor/director Peter Mullen, The Magdalen sisters, is hard-hitting. Dealing with women's imprisonment in Ireland's notorious Magdalen laundries, it is based on the documentary Love in a cold climate. It begins with the separate stories of three young women and how they came to be sent to the laundry. Margaret is raped by her cousin at a family wedding, and when she returns to the gathering there is a very powerful scene with no audible dialogue as the information of her rape is passed around. The reaction of her father is one of anger and the next day the priest drives her to the laundry, while her mother watches, powerless and silent. The second girl, Rose (renamed Patricia by the nuns on account of the fact they already have a Rose), has had a child outside of wedlock. Her parents are embarrassed by the stigma this has created in the local community and the church. Rose is talked into giving up the baby by the priest and is taken to the laundry by her father. Bernadette is an attractive girl in an orphanage who is sent to the laundry by the headmistress merely because she receives a lot of attention from the local boys. The three girls, along with many other women, are forced to work as slaves in the laundry run by nuns who humiliate and abuse them both physically and psychologically. The girls are punished by beatings or having their heads shaved. They are forced to stand naked, while the nuns mock their bodies and the priest uses them to satisfy his sexual desires. One young woman in laundry, Crispina, is affected so badly by the abuse she is subjected to that she tries to kill herself. In her first suicide attempt she soaks her nightgown in cold water and sleeps in wet clothes in an attempt to catch the flu. She tries to kill herself through illness, as committing suicide would result in her eternal damnation. When Rose tells her that generally people do not die of the flu, she attempts to hang herself, but is saved by the other girls. Margaret sought to revenge the priest for his sexual exploits by putting nettles in with his washing, which resulted in his skin being so irritated that he strips off and runs away naked in public. Margaret's plan backfired as Crispina, having had sex with the priest, is also affected. She holds up her skirt and shouts repeatedly, "You are no man of god". Late that night she is woken up and taken away to a mental institution. The film is well made and evokes both sadness and anger, but is well balanced with a degree of humour. What shocks most people in the statement in the final sequence that the last laundry closed only in 1996. After the screening at Dundee College of Contemporary Arts Peter Mullen was present for a question and answer session. He talked about the severe financial constraints for issue-based cinema. Directors making such films on average live on less than £19,000 a year despite the new found market. One of the main criticisms the film has received is that survivors of the laundries say their experience was far worse than depicted in the film. Mullen responded by quoting Brecht, saying: "This was the brick to show people what the house was like." Mullen talked about the reaction of the catholic church. The Vatican had condemned the film publicly, which led to journalists taking more of an interest and investigating further allegations of abuse, which in turn caused more embarrassment. As a result of this the catholic church in Ireland kept quiet about the film. There had, though, been some positive comments about the film from individuals in the church. One repentant nun said that such atrocities had arisen from the "complete absence of doubt" that those afflicting them felt about their calling. Many nuns had themselves suffered abuse and took the attitude, 'We've gone through it and we're nuns. Why shouldn't people who are no more than sinners go through it too?' Peter Mullen remarked that young homosexual men are often driven into the priesthood to suppress their sexual desires which I am sure is true. However, he then went on to say that the conditions these men endure distort their sexuality and can lead to paedophilia. This is nonsense and we must clearly challenge the idea that there is a link between homosexuality and paedophilia. Paedophilia stems generally from a cycle of abuse and a warped sense of sexuality affecting heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Sarah McDonald