Stewart Smyth looks at Roddy Doyle’s new film Rosie, arguing the movie sheds light on the reality of Ireland’s ever-deteriorating housing crisis.
Another week in La La Land, or what is more commonly referred to as the official response to the housing crisis in Ireland. The huge Raise the Roof protest outside the Dáil, on 3rd October, forced Fianna Fáil to show their true colours as opportunists extraordinaire by backing the opposition motion. A cute move, no doubt, but not enough to convince anyone that the party is little more than the government’s lackeys.
Then Monday brought votes in two Dublin local authorities to sell off public land to private developers. In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, one of the sites had been earmarked for traveller accommodation since 1985; that did not stop Fianna Fáil again siding with Fine Gael.
In South Dublin County Council not only was there the unholy alliance of FF/FG, this time the Labour Party joined in and voted in favour of privatising public land. After five years in government, supporting every neoliberal policy that Fine Gael could dream-up, you would have thought they would have learnt a lesson or two. Apparently not, which raises the question what is the point of the Labour Party.
This is ideological: “No!”
Later on Monday evening on the Claire Byrne Live programme, after Fr Peter McVerry had advanced a clear and insightful analysis of the roots of the housing crisis, leading him to the conclusion that the crisis is ideologically driven by the government, FG Cllr Tom O’Leary was asked, “Is this ideological from Fine Gael?” The response was a blunt “No”.
Cllr O’Leary then proceeded to reel off a list of numbers in an attempt to bamboozle the audience into thinking the government was actually doing something about the housing crisis. There was no attempt to engage with or put forward an alternative to Peter McVerry’s analysis, just more obfuscation from another Fine Gael “hired prize fighter” of the developer class.
The weekend before Roddy Doyle was interviewed on RTE Radio 1 about his new film, Rosie. The film is a snapshot of one families’ struggle to find a roof over their heads for the night. In the interview, Doyle availed of the opportunity to expose the insidious and prejudiced narrative coming from the government and their right-wing hacks about “working class people living in close proximity to each other” and the word “ghetto” being used. After stating how insulting that attitude is, Doyle exclaimed “I live in a ghetto, it’s a middle class ghetto” and went on to say that no one has ever criticised middle class or rich people for living near to each other.
I set out the above not as a loose historical record but to highlight the current battle of ideas into which Rosie is being released. In advance of seeing the film, I wondered how the film would compare to Ken Loach’s masterful Cathy Come Home. Loach’s 1966 television play showed how quickly and easily a young couple starting a family could lose one form of accommodation after another with the result that the family is torn asunder as the children are taken into care.
Where Cathy Come Home follows the whole process, Rosie focuses on the family at a tipping point; or as Roddy Doyle says “this is a family fraying at the edges”. The film is set in a 36-hour period and follows Rosie (played by Sarah Greene) and her partner John Paul (Moe Dunford) as they try to get a bed for themselves and their four children.
The family are caught in the horrifically misleading “self-accommodation” policy, where homeless families are expected to ring round lists of hotels each day trying to find a room for the night. The local authority then pays the bill usually by a credit card.
This policy allows the political class to say they are trying to help homeless families but in reality all the pressure is placed back on the family, who have already had the world turned upside down through being evicted. Focus Ireland have criticised the policy for causing untold stress and misery for families.
It is this stress that the film communicates to the audience. Throughout the film, the director, Paddy Breathnach, and the crew build the pressure through a relentless claustrophobic framing. Most of the film is set in the family car, with the camera inside the vehicle, placing the audience with the family as they try to do normal activities like homework or eat lunch. Finding a toilet becomes an exasperating event.
When the action moves out of the car we join Rosie and the family on a series of encounters where their horrendous living circumstances become almost too much to bear. In one of these engagements the family end up outside the old house they used to rent.
The house is empty. There is a “for sale” sign up and the neighbour pops out to reinforce the point that the landlord is selling the house—Doyle has said of this that he wanted to highlight that no one in the film is doing anything wrong. The landlord is not trying to pull a fast one by evicting one family and replace them with another on a higher rent. And yet Rosie’s family is still homeless.
This scene though does bring to the surface a contradiction at the heart of the housing crisis between the rights of private property owners and the common good.
Here is a house that is empty because the owner is exercising his constitutional right, with a homeless family outside it. Naturally, the children do not understand why they cannot go back inside and Rosie has to physically remove her son who just wants to play in the back garden.
Raise the Roof
Of course, the solution to this aspect of the housing crisis is to limit the blind obsession with private property rights and emphasise the societal and human need to provide shelter. This was expressed in the Raise the Roof motion passed in the Dáil, with no evictions into homelessness.
In a panel discussion as part of the Opening Doors film festival, Doyle was asked was there someone he wanted to watch the film; the question was laden with the expectation that he would suggest Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy. Doyle’s response was much more insightful—it is not about getting anyone individual or group of individuals to watch the film but about changing the narrative and debate about how we treat housing for working class people in Ireland.
And this is what makes Rosie an intensely important film; the ability to reach wider audiences, who will go to see a film with Roddy Doyle’s name attached, than can be reached by following current affairs programmes or various forms of activism.
This film is a must see for housing activists and non-activists alike, it will bring home the horrors that beset 1,800 families every day in Ireland; and in the process open up more space for campaigns like the National Homelessness and Housing Coalition and Take Back the City, to further isolate and expose the government for being out of touch and blinded by ideology.
Rosie opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday 12 October.