HELEN by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy
Joe and Christine’s debut feature film HELEN premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June 2008 before going on to screen at over 50 film festivals worldwide. Acclaimed as “an outstanding feature debut” (Observer) and “the latest vital sign of a UK art-cinema resurgence” (The Independent), HELEN has won many awards and nominations, while Joe and Christine have attracted considerable attention for their debut from leading film figures. HELEN is available on DVD and to download in the UK, Ireland and US.
An 18 year old girl called Joy has gone missing. Another girl called Helen is a few weeks away from leaving her care home. Helen is asked to ‘play’ Joy in a police reconstruction that will retrace Joy’s last known movements. Joy had everything. A loving family, a boyfriend, a bright future. Helen, parentless, has lived in institutions all her life and has never been close to anyone. Gradually Helen begins to immerse herself into the role, visiting the people and places that Joy knew; quietly and carefully insinuating her way into the lost girl’s life. But is Helen trying to find out what happened to Joy that day, or is she searching for her own identity?
Joe and Christine on HELEN:
“For us, it’s very difficult to talk about Helen without reference to the nine short films that preceded it. This collection of short films, known as the CIVIC LIFE serries, were made over the past 5 years with a common set of rules running through them. Namely, they were all shot on 35mm cinemascope on relatively low budgets, they predominantly used long takes, and they mostly featured people from local communities with little or no acting experience.
When we started out on that venture we didn’t have a clear sense that one day it would lead to the making of a feature film. It was perhaps when we had completed the fifth or sixth film in the series that we felt that there was something about this methodology that could lend itself to the feature length format.
Because these short films were each shot in one day, sometimes involving hundreds of people, with little or no time for rehearsals, the shoots themselves were often a case of staged chaos – a kind of under rehearsed performance event played out in real time over the ten minutes of the take. You see this in the completed films, the contradiction between something very composed and rigorously structured on the one hand, with people looking and waving into the camera on the other. The result is very much a cinema of ‘making do’. We like this very much and feel this tension between the slickness of 35mm production values and the rawness in the performances allows for something admittedly flawed but ultimately human and honest to come through.
For HELEN we set out to focus on two things in the making of the film. Firstly we needed to develop a more explicit sense of ‘story’. In our short films the presence of story is very incidental and in several of the films actually non-existent. We felt over the course of a feature film a story, even a simple one, would be important and also an interesting challenge to us. That the story became so focused on one character was very surprising to us particularly given the fact that it was to be shot across four cities (and two countries) and would involve the participation of many local people from each of those cities in its making. Secondly we planned to keep the existing CIVIC LIFE rules with the addition that we would use cutaways and process all the takes. For the short films in the CIVIC LIFE series we only ever processed one take from each shoot, in effect having nothing to ‘edit’. Normally the editing process allows the filmmaker to eliminate or disguise mistakes but with CIVIC LIFE the imperfections and flaws have become one of the defining features of the works. For Helen we knew we would have to cut ourselves some slack and give ourselves options, albeit limited, in the cutting room. With only 300 mins of footage to work with, using cutaways for HELEN allowed us to edit using all of the footage we shot which proved essential in dealing with how much the structure of the story changed during the edit.
In the end, the formal shifts we made were right for HELEN but what we hadn’t anticipated was how important the story would become. It slowly began to influence everything we did. We started out trying to concentrate on HOW we would tell this minimal and understated story – focusing primarily on how the camera would move through the locations to create the tone and mood of the film – but along the way we were surprised by how crucial the story became to all our decision-making. This became the focus of our approach in making the film, trying to find the balance between our desire to create something cinematic with the need to work through the various elements of the story. The resulting texture of the film has come out of this balancing act and has quite an enigmatic and poetic quality.
HELEN is an attempt to draw a portrait of a deeply complex, marginalised young woman. This complexity exists in all of us but so often teenagers are not seen or portrayed in such a way. Given her personal history she is also intensely private. We rarely see her emoting or showing how she really feels. This emotional restraint is at the heart of the film and leads to a predominantly introspective and muted world in which the story unfolds. It’s not that the film is unemotional but rather the emotion is quite hidden and subdued because of who Helen is and the reality of her troubled past.
At its most basic we hope HELEN is a gentle and tender story of a girl struggling to discover who she is as she starts her adult life.”
See the trailer of HELEN below:
See Mark Kermode’s review of HELEN below.