Travellers meet Teletubbies

spiked-film: Perry Ogden’s film about Irish Travellers is well shot but shallow.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Pavee Lackeen (Traveller Girl), directed by Perry Ogden, on general release.

Pavee Lackeen is really a documentary rather than a fiction film, but it’s a particular type of documentary. The film does not document true events or explain anything about the world or make an argument. Instead it gives us a glimpse of how a certain group of people lives. Look, it says, here are people who live in caravans and have trouble with the authorities and don’t have running water, and here is a little girl growing up like this, on the fringes of society.

In this, Pavee Lackeen is oddly similar to Robert Flaherty’s celebrated Nanook of the North (1922), which offered a glimpse of Eskimo life in a documentary made up of staged episodes but using real people in their real environment. Pavee Lackeen was filmed in Dublin with a cast mostly made up of non-actors, and starring 10-year-old Winnie Maughan along with her actual mother and other members of the family. Subtitles are used throughout – adding to the slightly anthropological feel – as while everyone speaks English, some are hard to make out.

Not much happens. Winnie is suspended from school for fighting, and the council threatens to evict the family from its caravan pitch – but the bulk of the film is made up of Winnie wandering about aimlessly. At one point she sits on a wall, shivering and eating chips with her sister Rosie, who is all dressed up with nowhere to go. ‘Boring, innit?’ Rosie says. She’s not wrong.

That said, the film is beautifully filmed. Its director Perry Ogden is a photographer, who has previously produced a book, Pony Kids, about young people in similar circumstances. While he clearly wants to highlight the marginalisation of Traveller children, and the prejudices they face, however, any political agenda is very much at odds with the nature and style of the film. At times this is unsettling. When Winnie is suspended, rather unfairly, we know this is not really happening, and yet our knowledge that this is based on a real situation makes it difficult to suspend disbelief sufficiently to feel the sense of injustice we might with a straightforward fiction film.

The eviction similarly feels too didactic to be dramatic and too staged to be convincingly informative. In fact, the council is trying to house the family, and it is never clear whether Winnie’s mother is turning down the house offered because she doesn’t like the area as she says, or because she simply prefers living in caravans. A ‘Traveller activist’ who appears at one point tells the girls that she lives in a house now, and in fact nobody seems to do much travelling, but this stuff is never explained.

Winnie’s other adventures are a bit like the short educational films you get in the Teletubbies. Winnie goes into various shops and talks to the owners: the lady in one shop gives her a cardboard Indian god Ganesh; in another she discovers that all the videos are in Russian; and then she finds out about hair extensions in yet another shop. These scenes add little to the film beyond demonstrating Dublin’s ethnic diversity.

But one scene does rise above this level. This is when Winnie goes into an arcade and plays on the dance-step machine. Like the dodgems scene in Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, it gives us a glimpse of happiness in an otherwise pretty bleak life. Sadly it is a mere machine that engages Winnie’s enthusiasm; her encounters with human beings beyond her own family are all too fleeting and shallow.

Pavee Lackeen is not sentimental. Ogden is certainly not asking us to pity Winnie and her family; first and foremost he is alerting us to the fact that they are there. If the primary problem for Irish Travellers is that they are ‘invisible’, then perhaps a film like this, a photographer’s film, is just what is called for. But more political questions are never far from the surface, and in refusing to deal with these more explicitly, Ogden has blurred his picture. Above all, the film fails to give any sense of what ‘Traveller culture’ might look like without the poverty and marginalisation. The production notes talk about preserving the Travellers’ ethnic identity, but there is little distinct culture in evidence.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it is poverty and marginalisation that define this identity, and that if its passing were to mean Winnie and her family living more like the settled Irish (including those Russians, Chinese and Africans), it would be no bad thing.

Read on:

In spiked-film last week: Emilie Bickerton on Capote.

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