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Last Updated: Friday, 23 July, 2004, 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK
'Epic struggle' to make prison drama
By Diarmaid Fleming
BBC Northern Ireland

A film about a protest by republican women prisoners in Armagh jail in the 1980s has been shown for the first time.

Making the film on a shoestring budget was a massive undertaking.

Silent Grace is set in Armagh women's prison between 1980 and 1981, during the republican prisoners' protests and hunger strikes both there and in the Maze Prison.

It tells the story of a young woman glue-sniffer arrested after one of her friends is shot speeding from a checkpoint in a stolen car.

The film is set in Armagh women's prison
The film is set in Armagh women's prison

Almost by accident, she finds herself housed with republican prisoners in Armagh jail, after she falsely claims in court to be a member of the IRA.

Arriving in prison, she receives a hostile reception from the other prisoners, viewed with deep suspicion as a potential informer.

But the film's main dramatic theme is the hunger strike, which begins in the prison, as the women join the protest started in the Maze prison for political status.

As the protest develops, the life or death drama brings the republican prisoners' leader and her cell-mate closer together.

Getting it made at all was an epic struggle.

The first Dublin screening was an emotional moment for writer, director and producer Maeve Murphy from Belfast.

The film has received good reviews
The film has received good reviews

"We're here and we've done it and it's just such an incredible pleasure and delight to finally have this film screened in Dublin - so it's brilliant," she told the audience at Dublin's UGC Cinema in Parnell Street before bursting into tears.

Backed by the Northern Ireland Film Commission and the Irish Film Board, the movie was shot on a shoestring budget in four weeks in Dublin's Kilmainham jail.

Murphy, who initially wrote a play on the prison protest, says that the film is not a historical account, but instead a drama to tell the human story.

"My intention as a filmmaker was to tell a story that would open people's hearts - I'm not a politician, historian or documentary maker," she says.

"My sole contribution to something like this is to be able to humanise a situation and humanise women who'd been demonised, and humanise men who'd been demonised as well - like in the character of the prison governor."

I was looking at it from a prisoner's perspective which might be a little unfair on the director because I think it's a very brave tribute to the women
Marie Gavaghan
Former prisoner

The film has received good reviews.

Irish Times film critic Michael Dwyer praises the film for its balance: "Silent Grace is a good film, a very interesting film.

"This film is probably more apolitical and more balanced than most of the films dealing with the situation in Northern Ireland over the last 30 or 40 years, and is more concerned with the human side of the drama," he says.

Perhaps the most discerning critics of the film would be former prisoners.

Marie Gavaghan served six years in Armagh on conspiracy charges in the 1970s.

And although she was released before the prison protests, she said the film should be seen as a dramatic rather than a historical account.

"I was looking at it from a prisoner's perspective which might be a little unfair on the director because I think it's a very brave tribute to the women," she says.
The movie was shot in Dublin's Kilmainham jail - now a museum
The movie was shot in Dublin's Kilmainham jail - now a museum

"In a lot of ways she's got it right, but there's an awful lot too that we'd actually include and we would put a different focus on it.

"But saying that I enjoyed the film because the humour's there," she says.

While making a film is a huge undertaking, that's not even half the battle.

It's an even bigger struggle getting an independent movie onto the big screen and into cinemas, in competition against the big budget Hollywood blockbusters, says Michael Dwyer.

"Distribution is a tough area, because even though there are more screens than there have been for decades, quite often the big films are playing on five and six screens in the same complex and they have the benefit of the really sophisticated Hollywood marketing machine, which is very well oiled.

"They have great resources financially available to them for advertising and publicity.

"Smaller films can't compete really in that area and they are just hoping really for 'word of mouth' and good reviews to find them their audience," says Dwyer.

Negotiations are under way to have the film released on video later this year.

This could turn out to be best avenue for independent movies like Silent Grace to reach a wider audience.

BBC NI's Diarmaid Fleming:
"The film's main dramatic theme is the hunger strike"


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