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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November 2003, 11:55 GMT
'Why we made a film about Holy Cross'
Holy Cross
Cafolla says we can't be afraid to ask how tensions erupt
The scenes at a Belfast primary school, when little girls on their first day at school were at the centre of a row between Catholics and Protestants, is the subject of a controversial BBC One drama, being broadcast on Monday. Here the film's author Terry Cafolla explains why the film was made.

It is ironic that a film commissioned to get behind the headlines is itself causing headlines.

Not that there is anything wrong with headlines. They catch the eye, they sell papers and they stick in the mind. 'Naked Face of Sectarian Hatred'... ' Path to Barbarism'... those are two that stuck in my mind in September 2001. And if a headline catches the eye, a picture grabs it. Screaming protesters hurling abuse at little girls. Weeping primary school children clinging to furious parents.

I'll bet that these are the images you remembered too. But snapshots are dangerous, the stories they tell are deceptively simple, black and white.

Holy Cross is not a story that tries to tell two points of view, because as far as I'm concerned there is only one story at the heart of our film
This is why we made our film, Holy Cross, for BBC One. Except it's not just about Holy Cross, it's about ordinary people and their children who live in extraordinary circumstances. It's about the choices people make to protect their families and teach their children right from wrong, the choices that shape character and change relationships.

Holy Cross is not a story that tries to tell two points of view, because as far as I'm concerned there is only one story at the heart of our film: families who take hard decisions, ones we may disagree with, but which we are glad we don't have to make.

Fictional families

When I started reading the exhaustive BBC research, there were two questions that needed answering. What drove Catholic parents to walk past the protesters day after day? What drove Protestants to protest at Catholic children and their parents? If I could write the film for somebody like myself who knew very little about the incident, I would also be writing it for the wider audience.

Our film was a hybrid. Our fictional families needed to live their lives against a backdrop of carefully researched real-world events. By the time the story reaches the snapshot we remember, it should no longer be a snapshot, it should be a story about people we care for. A story about children watching the grown-ups they love tear each other apart while engaged in the daily struggle to protect their families.

Holy Cross

The fact that it was a hybrid had other consequences. On a straightforward fictional BBC drama script, there might be a dozen people who read it through the development stage.

On Holy Cross, we had researchers checking facts, we had lawyers checking for legal problems, we had BBC editorial policy checking for...actually I'm not too sure what they were checking for, all I know is every time we got a phone call from them, my weekend plan to stay away from the computer was gone.

The audience hopefully will feel what it is like to be in the shoes of our two fictional families
Through each draft, I kept my eye on the characters. Make them real. Make the audience care so that even when they end up in that snapshot, when they end up on that road, they'll know why.

The other big question was who we were responsible to in this project? Were we responsible to the viewer? Yes, because we wanted to bring this story to a wide audience, to take a world famous news story and challenge the perceptions and overturn stereotypes that come with it.

Were we responsible to the people involved? Yes because the film had to represent the experiences and choices they faced every day, although it couldn't show every view.

Hardest scenes

But as the writer, my main responsibility was to the emotional core of the characters and their journeys. If we live alongside our characters, we see the world through their eyes. Which is why the two hardest scenes to write were the scenes that put our families and their children in the snapshot. They were hard to write because I didn't want to put them through it.

Even after director Mark Brozel started shooting the film, new research kept coming in. There were a lot of last minute changes on Holy Cross. Real life isn't as tidy as fiction. We had to remove a line of dialogue last week because of the local elections.

We had a circle of facts that we could move around in, but limitations are perversely freeing. One scene had to be rewritten because it would have identified real people. The end version of that scene that made it to screen says more than any other scene in the film. Both sides stand in one room, but at opposite ends. Our characters occupy the same space but they don't share it. It was a metaphor for the area, it became the signature scene for the piece and much as it pains me to admit it, we wouldn't have found it if it hadn't been for the legal and editorial policy comments.

Bronagh Gallagher
Actress Bronagh Gallagher plays one of the parents at the centre of the dispute
If the scenes were hard to write they were almost unbearable to watch. The audience hopefully will feel what it is like to be in the shoes of our two fictional families. By the time the first day of term comes we have shared their lives, seen their fears, their problems, their dilemmas, we have occupied the same space as them. This is why Holy Cross is such a hard drama to watch. The characters that we have grown to know are at the epicentre of a real event. And unlike us, they have no choice but to deal with it.

We can't be afraid to ask why and how sectarian tensions erupt. Was now the right time to make it? I don't know if there is ever a right time to make a film like this but I think so. The communities are understandably apprehensive. All I can say is that I hope that when you watch this film you'll have an insight into what it is they are apprehensive about.

As for me, I am proud of the film. Everyone involved was totally committed to telling the story as honestly as possible, and I think we succeeded.

Holy Cross was broadcast in the UK on BBC One on Monday 10 November at 2100 GMT.


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