Pat Murphy's Maeve is showing exclusively on MUBI in most countries starting November 29, 2021 in the series Rediscovered.
A couple years ago, Club Des Femmes invited co-director John Davies, director of photography Robert Smith, and myself to a screening of Maeve at the Rio in London. We made this film in 1980, but hadn’t watched it together since it was first released. Maeve is composed of a series of episodes in conversation with each other, but that night as the screening progressed, the three of us were watching another, more inner narrative strand, because every scene triggered such vivid personal memories of making the film in Belfast.
Seeing the film at the Rio, I wondered at the craziness of making a feature in the middle of an escalating war, but we had some instinct that we could do it (in fact, looking back and without being arrogant, I really believe that only we could have done it.) In those days, when filmmakers needed Belfast locations, they mostly used Ringsend in Dublin or cities in the industrial north of England, but we were committed to making Maeve in Belfast where it was set, and to working with a combination of professional and non-professional actors. So, as well as the Lyric and the Arts Theatres, our actors came from Ballymurphy Peoples Theatre, which was started by Fr. Des Wilson, as well as Turf Lodge Community Theatre. What they brought to the film was extraordinary. Professionals accustomed to a certain kind of performance were working alongside people who were part of a theatre that spoke directly about their daily lives.
It still amazes me that Maeve exists and that despite all the chaos and danger, we managed to hold onto the ideas which were central to the film. At heart, Maeve is a calm and considered work. It is very much of its time, yet its form resists and interrogates the rushed contingency of cinema verité documentary and newsreel, which were the dominant visual languages through which the North was viewed.
One of the courses at the RCA Film School presented films about the North as a means of looking at establishment versus oppositional views. Although I had been gathering material towards a film for some time, my reaction to this course contributed to what eventually became the screenplay. Notions of “documentary truth” seemed like the greatest fictions to me; its authority derived from an unquestioning acceptance of “the camera doesn’t lie.” I felt that only fiction could offer a critical space where different kinds of representation could be unpacked and explored.
So, at the script stage there was a lot of discussion around what Maeve was not going to be, and about how the themes of the film couldn’t be contained in conventional narrative forms. I was very influenced by Godard’s sharp and elegant way of inviting the audience to be conscious of watching the construct of word and image (particularly in Vivre sa vie), as well as by Brechtian techniques of distanciation, whereby the whole process of identification is challenged. Maeve is a kind of self-reflexive, multi-layered rite of passage film, which, as well as being about landscape and history, storytelling and memory, asks how a woman positions herself against the background of what was going on in the North within the context of Irish Republicanism,. Maeve questions everything around her, and as a result she has a complex relationship to the other characters. I saw this film very much as a political document and fully expected it to become redundant as time passed and issues were resolved.
I believe that Maeve succeeded in its aim, which was to bring information on Ireland to new audiences. Its release coincided with the Second Hunger Strike in 1981 and the situation in the North remained volatile and dangerous for a long time afterwards. During those years, discussion around the film focused largely on the issues. So, it was interesting to look at Maeve again as a film rather than as a purely political document and see that the direction, cinematography, editing, and writing held up so well after all this time.