Jordanne Jones traces her own relationship with class and examines depictions of working class in film
Depicting the Irish working class in film; when is it done right and when is it done wrong? This question deserves a long answer that I will have written in a book in stores for you all one day with a bit of luck. But for now, we gambled with watching two films this week that represent the working class, Veronica Guerin (2003) and Sorry We Missed You (2019). So, here’s my thinking with these two.[restrict]
Before we kick into that, let me fill you in on why class in film is important to me. My Da introduced me to film and its classics, his attitudes and time for it helped my love for film flourish. Film means a great deal to me. And what does class mean to me?
Well, let’s go back a few years to when I was in secondary school, only dreaming of studying film. Firstly, I’ve always thought about the concept of social class in theory. With a young mother, Lynn Ruane, who managed to encompass herself in typically middle-class political conversation, she always made the effort to inform and involve me in such topics. However, I was still blind to the drastic differences in what life meant and looked like for me, my friends, and family, in comparison to someone living in a middle-class socioeconomic world. I’d always thought about the concept of social class in theory.
Nothing will better shake the culture shock than landing a prize spot as a student in Trinity when you’re coming from Tallaght. Although I did manage to live there previously for a year when I was still in secondary school and my Ma was elected SU president, still, the culture shock wasn’t completely shaken for me, and my Ma’s shock had probably run its course by the time we moved on campus.
I wasn’t in the guts of it, I only walked through the beautiful walls and through its arch out to the 27 bus stop, back out to Killinarden Community School. KCS, where I knew the rhythm of things, not pronouncing my Ts wasn’t a notion and everyone understood the pain that lived in us and our communities. Talking about how long till me Da’s sentence was up, and how there had been a suicide in my family, was met with similar stories and a comforting feeling of your pain being comprehended and shared.
KCS to Trinity wasn’t even close to the most interesting of journey’s though. From big grey institute Trinity, to big grey institute Mountjoy to visit my wonderful dad was definitely painting a poetic picture of class in my young mind. I do remember a thought buzzing in my head at the time when thinking of these buildings; one keeping us out and one keeping us in. Stepping between both of these worlds is where I believe the cogs in my relationship with culture and class identity began to turn within me.
First year of college, people know and admire my Senator mother, they’ve seen my acting and the rest of the middle-class exposure me and my Mam found ourselves in. Eventually, as my friendships grew older, they knew about my Da’s sentence, the addiction, and death around me, but without it sitting steadily and understandingly on them like it did in Tallaght. Compassion and empathy of course. But my story was foreign on these beautiful grounds.
That’s when I realised, I was shaking their culture shock. Did they know how culture shocked I was? How I had to catch my breath when I saw their homes, the areas they live, and when I heard their stories and their families. We opened up our worlds to one another, but I was stepping one foot in both worlds. This is when, with open eyes, I felt what class meant. It wasn’t we are working class and experience these injustices anymore; it was we are working class and experience these injustices while other communities don’t. And not only do they not, but they also thrive with given resources.
I am working class representation for my middle-class film student friends, but that will never be enough for them. I’ve stepped into their world, but they have only heard of mine. But, what’s a great remedy for representation? Good, reliable film. Has film done so? Yes. Has it been done successfully? Of course; take Ken Loach’s approach.
Sorry We Missed You reminded me of my first feature film role I landed, I Used to Live Here (2014), in many ways. It’s natural style and tone and use of nonprofessional actors hugely helped its authenticity and accuracy in representing the working-class life. As did director Frank Berry on set of I Used to Live Here. Filmed in Tallaght, on the streets where I grew up, he asked, “we need extras for this scene Jordanne, would you know anybody who would want to get involved”, I responded something along the lines of, “no bother, I’ll knock into me nanny’s, it’s a Saturday, all me cousins will be in your movie.”
So, that’s what happened, me and all me cousins were in a movie. This was a dream come through for little 12-year-old Jordanne. She would write scripts for all her cousins to perform in our Nanny Jones’, oh and when she discovered the pause button on her nanny’s video phone, it completely enlightened her to a world of film and its possibilities. So, there I was, on an actual set with a big camera with many wires and a real-life director, and me cousins and some school friends I managed to get hold of.
The community, in this together, with real life experiences of the world that the film is attempting to portray in the most honest of ways. That’s where the heart is in I Used to Live Here when representing the Irish working class in places like Tallaght. This heart that I’m talking about will come up as something I look for when trying to analyse the storytelling of the working class in cinema. And this heart, this honesty, faithfulness, and good accuracy of representation, is something I feel and see in lots of Ken Loach’s approach to filmmaking.
So, the Ken Loach film of this week was Sorry We Missed You. The natural tone of all the actors went hand in hand with the natural tone and stylistic choice of what everyday life looks like when you’re working class. This is a choice I favour because, although our drastic injustices need to be represented, often they can be exploited as tragedy stories for viewership.
When this overshadows all that is good in us and our communities, it is biased representation. Ken Loach takes his sweet time exploring the everyday family, as a chance for us to truly see them, in and out. It may seem as though things aren’t so bad, and we get to see many beautiful and heart-warming moments between the family, with great respect and understanding of them even in their bad. However, tensions are building, cracks pop up and resurface, and have a knock-on effect on all of the home. This is a theme I’m going to call, The Working-Class Risk Factor.
Ken Loach has a great understanding of how working-class families have big risks at stake, and how one problem has a huge impact on heightened distress for a home. One example of this in the film is when the son’s phone is taken from him because of his ‘bad behaviour’, that is also explored through an understanding and heartfelt lens. The parents have taken the phone out of stress because a letter has come through the post about the son’s absence in school.
The fright of a fine when money is scarce while you’re working overtime, leaves them desperate to discipline. The phone is taken, and the son’s response leaves the family in vulnerable positions. The son had decided to take his dad’s car keys, knowing he needs them for his delivery job. The dad is faced with a sanction from his workplace and the stress that’s been building gradually from the beginning is reaching its exploding point. These are the big risks in the everyday working-class family I believe were brilliantly represented in Sorry We Missed You.
Now take Veronica Guerin (2003), directed by Joel Schumacher. The film is a biographical crime film based on actual journalist Veronica Guerin and centres around her tremendous will and bravery to tackle the faces behind Dublin’s illegal drug trade, which ultimately ended in her murder. I understand the film’s goal and priority is to retell the story of Veronica Guerin and that it does. However, if I were to write the film, I feel there could have been more involvement in capturing the working-class in the inner city at the time in a way that could have been more impactful and informative on the matter. A film with great opportunity to capture the heart and soul of working-class communities in crisis. However, even when these communities are the core of this true story, it doesn’t take this opportunity.
I watched the film without knowing much of the ins and outs of Veronica Guerin’s story, however with direct family in addiction and recovery coming from inner city Dublin, I have many raw emotions in regard to Dublin’s opiate epidemic of the 1980s. The Veronica Guerin film attempts to portray the devastating mark of Dublin’s drug outbreak prevalent in inner city Dublin in the 90s that ran rampantly through working class communities.
In regard to what was included in the film, the communities of the everyday people are overlooked, and generic scenes of addiction and flats were wish-washy throughout the film, and this showed the film’s obvious interest in the drama of journalist vs gangster. The lack of context in the dialogue for Guerin’s character behind why she feels so passionately towards catching the drug trade’s leading criminals, leaves the film dry of coverage on important discussion around the neglect and tragedies of the inner-city working class of the 90s. This is where I feel the film lacks sight of importance, and heart of storytelling, which makes understanding Guerin’s effort to protest relentlessly pretty difficult, leaving the film to fall flat at points.
Despite the film’s portrayal, the epilogue reads, “Veronica Guerin’s writing turned the tide in the drug war.” Guerin’s murder was in 1996 and it spurred Ireland into action, for example, in April 1996 the Health Research Board began funding a two-year qualitative study to examine patterns in illicit drug use and the relationship between problematic drug use, unemployment and socioeconomic deprivation. However, the ending scene of Guerin’s lasting impact and push to protest after her death showed people demonstrating what mirrored the Concerned Parents movement of the 1980s. The sense of community, resilience and fight for change was a beautiful scene to end on in memory of Guerin, but a sense of dread crept over me when I thought back to the times in Tallaght my parents grew up in. Vigilantes and their huts cornered people within their estates, which resulted in the reality of small-time drug dealers and their families being ‘pushed out’ by their community, and in some cases even beaten and killed.
A reminder I wish the film had emphasised; the working-class communities mustn’t be punished or blamed for resulting in addiction and drug dealing, and saddest of all, mustn’t turn on each other. If our communities weren’t neglected, addiction wouldn’t have swept these communities like a sandstorm.