Pavee Lackeen - The Traveller Girl Review

Filmed naturalistically on handheld DV, with non-professional actors and little in the way of structure or narrative, a film about the travelling community of Ireland is not really an appealing subject and could be a bit of a challenge and for anyone used to films being films and documentaries being documentaries – but its blending of fact and fiction and an extremely understated and realistic delivery, influenced by Alan Clarke, makes Pavee Lackeen a unique and compelling film.

The traveller girl of the Romany title is Winnie, a 10 year-old girl living with her mother Rosie, her brothers and her sisters, on a trailer on wasteland in the outskirts of Dublin. The city council want to build in the area where they are staying and threaten them with eviction from the site. As they are only offered a house in a bad area, traditionally rife with drugs, and where they are likely to be threatened, Rosie refuses to move there with her young children.

Perry Ogden’s film follows the predicament that this situation places on the characters, with an almost documentary-like precision, blurring the lines between fact and fiction with a roaming handheld camera and some hard-hitting performances that go way beyond conventional acting. Principally, and with a keenness of observation for the potentialities it opens up, Ogden does this through following the daily life of Winnie. The instability of her circumstances at home is mirrored in a disrupted education, the young girl suspended from school for constantly getting into fights. Lacking guidance, Winnie is a total innocent, unaware of the ways of the world, with views on right and wrong that are mixed-up with sin, religion, superstition and rap music. Separated from society, she is even unaware of the real poverty of her circumstances. The film captures therefore the carefree attitude of the young girl left to cope for herself through some humorous, poignant and damn near heartbreaking scenes of Winnie struggling to justify her condition to teachers, social workers and doctors, diving through a clothes bank to pick out new things to wear, or getting “glammed up” with her sister for a night-out at travelling chip van.

Pavee Lackeen benefits tremendously from its ambiguous semi-documentary/semi-fiction status in the same way as Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple used real characters and dramatised their real lives to achieve a unique and powerful effect. Lacking any of the symbolism and directorial influence of that film, Pavee Lackeen, through its subject matter, its young female protagonist and filming technique, more closely resembles Rosetta, but bears an impassive impartiality that makes the Dardenne Bros look like the Wachowskis. The acting is remarkably good, with completely unselfconscious and open, naturalistic performances from the people of the travelling community. In fact, the only time you can distinguish between actors and non-actors is invariably when professional actors try to perform and come across less convincingly than the real people.

The film however makes its point very plainly and very effectively not only through its characters, but through their surroundings. Here we can see the huge multicultural society that is now the east coast of Ireland, with Russian video shops, Chinese-run amusement arcades and shops that sell Hindu objects. By showing how the traveller people are accepted unconditionally by the immigrants, since they can’t distinguish between them and regular Dubliners, the director manages to find an original way of showing prejudice – implying it by its absence and surprising the viewer when they don’t encounter it. The rest of the film is similarly fresh in its approach - nothing is clearly spelt out, but the implication is there in every single frame of the film – even in such a multicultural society, prejudice against travellers still exists and marginalisation of their community from education and amenities only leads to poverty, health problems and prison. It’s a sober message that is all the more hard-hitting for the frighteningly realistic manner in which the film is made.

Pavee Lackeen is released on DVD in the UK by Verve Pictures. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and the DVD is encoded for Region 2.

Pavee Lackeen is filmed in what looks like standard definition Digital Video and in documentary fashion, which means that there are no lighting rigs set up. The quality is therefore fairly basic, and necessarily so. In those terms, the transfer here is just about perfect. This is not the kind of film that would benefit from a HD transfer, since you are not going to improve on the quality of the original source materials.

Likewise, there are no sound booms or hi-definition technology to pick up every nuance of dialogue here. It was probably recorded directly on the camera with the image. Consequently the sound can be a bit dull and muffled and with the thick, impenetrable southern Irish accents, comprehension can often be very difficult. I’m reasonably familiar with this accent, but still had difficulty with some sequences, so I suspect it might be much more difficult for anyone outside Ireland.

Considering the difficulties in understanding some of the dialogue, subtitles are pretty much essential and fortunately they are presented here as an option. Following every word however is not essential to the film. I think you can grasp the meaning and intent much more from the circumstances and locations. But including subtitles for hard of hearing, particularly for this film, is commendable, and they do an excellent job of capturing what is spoken.

Trailer (1:30)
The trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen and displays all the qualities of the film and its subject.

Director and Writer’s Commentary
The commentary reveals that the film is not as improvised as it looks, with a lot of effort going into casting, continuity, costumes, clearing of music rights and getting permission to use certain locations. Background information is provided on the Irish travelling community, the real-life characters and the locations used, as well as what is happening in some scenes – which is useful since it is not always clear. I’d have preferred an interview rather than a commentary however, since I would have liked to hear more about why the filmmakers made the film, what they hoped to achieve and the reaction the film has had.

Director’s Photo Montage (2:52)
Originally a photographer, Perry Ogden took a number of photographs while researching the film and during its making. They are excellent, showing many of the film’s cast in a relaxed, natural, and carefree manner.

The naturalistic semi-documentary approach of Pavee Lackeen is quite deceptive, leaving the viewer never quite knowing what is scripted and what is improvised or real. The director and writer in the commentary also surprisingly confess that the travelling people actors would never do in real-life many of the things they are shown to do in the film. It’s clear however, that it is meant to present a bigger picture than a documentary about one family. The fact that the filmmakers are able to do this without the viewer feeling that any of the situations are contrived or that any of the performances are anything less than real is quite an achievement, and it gives the film tremendous force. These are not characters in a film that you will easily forget. Verve Pictures present the film exceptionally well on DVD, with a surprisingly strong selection of extra features.

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