Film

Herself director Claire Dunne: 'We need to look at the building blocks of people, not just their houses'

Besides writing the script for Herself, Clare Dunne (centre) plays lead character Sandra. Photo: Herself.film

Besides writing the script for Herself, Clare Dunne (centre) plays lead character Sandra. Photo: Herself.film

The idea for Herself came at a strange moment in my life. It was February 27, 2014. I had just been working with Phyllida Lloyd on the remount of Julius Caesar in New York as part of an all-female company where we actually played prisoners, putting on a play – a play within a play.

During our years on that we did a lot of workshops in UK prisons during which I learned that a large amount of people end up committing crimes due to being in a situation of domestic violence, and a lot of prisoners grew up in homes where domestic violence affected them hugely in their choices and relationships as adults.

Anyway, that day in 2014, my best friend – a single mother with three children – called me to tell me her hunt for a home over the past few weeks had been fruitless. She had been given a month’s notice and the housing crisis in Dublin meant queues round the block for the one or two viewings that would be available, and the properties would always go to professional couples with better-looking bank statements. My friend had to fill in a form declaring herself homeless in order to get temporary accommodation – a room in a hotel or B&B – while she and her children were between homes.

I was so angry at this injustice. My friend is a determined, hard-working, incredible mother with so much energy. Frustrated on her behalf, after I hung up from our chat I started fantasising. I wished she could just build a house – forget all this mortgage mentality and waiting in queues for some landlord to overcharge her. Surely it didn’t cost that much to build a house?

‘I spent five months studying how to write screenplays’

So I Googled ‘self build Ireland’ then added ‘cheap’. I discovered Dominic Stevens, a Dublin architect who designed and self-built a house for €25,000. A miracle. That night, just as my head hit the pillow the idea for Herself came in a flash. “A woman decides to build a home for herself. In her flight from an almost life threatening situation, a community and new group of friends begin to form around her and her life is transformed.” There and then my life changed. I knew I had to tell this story. I had to become a screenwriter and all I had done was a one-woman show five years before.

I flew home to Ireland. I found a way to live cheaply while I spent five months studying how to write screenplays, reading, researching and meeting people like Dominic Stevens himself, people from Women’s Aid, family lawyers and child psychologists, professors, economists living in eco villages – you name it, I did it. I visited the courts, secret refuges in small towns in Ireland, went to see Dominic’s house, and last but not least I met many survivors of domestic violence and also self-builders.

I learned that everything is interconnected. That there is a consistent stream of people finally being brave enough to leave an abusive partner but having nowhere to go. I learned of the shortage of space in refuges and how quickly they must try to re-house people but that the housing crisis was causing a huge amount of people to end up in temporary accommodation for months and sometimes years. It saddened and angered me – the amount of money hotels were making from the homelessness crisis while that money could go towards social housing and integrating these people into lives anew.

I also got frustrated when I saw the amount of money, considering I was researching and realising that building a house can cost so little.

So all of this time I was working alone on the piece and got some support from Screen Ireland, the national agency for film, TV and animation. But it was when I reached out to Sharon Horgan by email that the ball began rolling. I wrote to her and sent her the script, thinking it would be months for anyone in her company Merman to write back, but two days later she asked to talk to me on the phone. She loved it. She wanted Herself to be Merman’s first feature film. I could not believe it.

From there on it kind of snowballed. Phyllida and I were working on the trilogy of plays she had created with our female Shakespeare company and asked to read the latest draft. I never asked her to direct it and she warned me that she couldn’t… but after reading the script in its latest format, she told me she realised this was aligning with all the work we had been doing on stage – enabling unheard voices to be heard and making socially conscious, envisioning work that actually meant something and was not just for entertainment.

Pretty soon Sharon had got Element Pictures, an Irish film company, to read the script – Phyllida told them she wanted me to play Sandra and then we got into development and eventually production a few years later. The cherry on the cake was having Harriet Walter – a truly inspiring actress and activist who had been the leading actor of our female Shakespeare company – come on board to play Peggy, one of the main characters.

We had our motley crew and a low budget but we had a group of people all focused on telling this zeitgeist story of a woman building her own home while the housing crisis raged on.

I think the most enlightening thing about the journey of making the film was that it aligned with the story of the protagonist, Sandra. She was building a house and I was building a film. I remember it was during the Centre for Alternative Technology course I did in Wales where I fully realised the journey Sandra and so many others are on when they finally decide to leave an abusive space and person. They have nothing left of themselves after so much gaslighting and wearing down, but the one decision they have left inside of them is the last morsel of self-love and fight for their own existence, and that this morsel should be minded and nurtured and grown from the moment they finally leave.

Finding a new home is perhaps the first bridge to build into their new lives. We need to look at the building blocks of the people themselves, not just the houses around them.

When I met some real-life Sandras I met truly strong spirits on the other side of it all, like soldiers who had fought a war years ago. They were frank and honest about the stuff that had happened but it didn’t reactivate the trauma in their bodies any more. They were solid and strong. They were grateful to every person who answered a phone or stood with them in courts or held their hand when they were grieving, and they knew the value of that and often became counsellors or – in one case – set up refuges themselves. They were funny and charming and full of energy. They had found themselves again and they were living life in a way they perhaps never knew was possible once upon a time.

Herself is in UK and Irish cinemas now, herself.film

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