The direct care system for asylum seekers has been the subject of controversy for two decades. Still, the subject has received limited attention in film or television drama. The issues will still be unclear to many otherwise well-informed people.
“We need a system that is more human rights-sensitive,” Frank Berry, director of Incoming Aisha, tells me. “With dignity, with medical care – and all the basic human rights outlined by the UN. The system as it is – and as it was – does not respect these rights.”
Berry is exactly the filmmaker who deals with the topic. For more than a decade, the Dubliner has built a reputation as our leading social realist. His first feature film, a beautiful documentary called Ballymun Lullaby, started out as a small project to raise money for Ron Cooney’s music project in this housing development. I Used to Live Here grew out of an article in this newspaper about a wave of suicides. Michael Inside, released in 2017, took an unfazed look at Ireland’s prison system. While researching this last film, he stumbled across the remarkable fact that the Justice Department managed both prisons and direct care. That struck him as odd.
“I read a really interesting article in the Irish Times called ‘Lives in limbo’ that talked about the direct supply system,” says Berry. “So I just thought: I’d like to know more about it. Sometimes a project comes along where I just feel like I want to know more in an authentic way. And so I got in touch with Lucky Khambule, a co-founder of Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland. The first step I take is always to position myself responsibly. That was in 2017.”
Someone used to tell me that the manager at their center worked their way up from the kitchen. Great for him but is this manager the right person to deal with traumatized people?
Five strange years later, Aisha arrives to open the Cork International Film Festival. Berry has secured a top-notch cast. Letitia Wright, who eats up box office elsewhere in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, plays the eponymous protagonist – a young Nigerian woman seeking asylum in modern-day Ireland. We see how it withstands large and small loads. The staff at their accommodation is unwelcoming. There are endless delays in their application. We learn that, despite securing work at a hairdresser, she can be transferred to another location without prior notice. Distraction comes when she befriends a new employee at the center, played by Josh O’Connor (a far cry from his role as the young Prince Charles in The Crown).
The film is full of small details that come from the research. Aisha tries to heat her own food in the center’s microwave as she doesn’t trust Halal regulations, but is told this is not allowed.
“A lot of people told me they didn’t have confidence that managers had been trained to deal with vulnerable people,” says Berry. “A lot of the discussion was about a lack of education – someone told me early on that the manager at their center worked his way up from the kitchen. Great for him but is this manager the right person to deal with traumatized people?”
I feel like I inherited filmmaking more from my mother. She’s just a great listener and someone with a very strong belief in social justice. I’ve listened to her all my life. Your values are in the movies
And yet. Aisha does not demonize the staff. One gets the feeling that they are condescending to asylum seekers, but there is little explicit racism or naked cruelty in the film. There is more of a feeling of gears rattling in a poorly designed machine.
“I did that in Michael Inside too. I didn’t want to denigrate the prison guards like one would for a genre film. I find that less real. I met some managers early on. I met a business person and I also met someone I thought was empathetic. I wanted it to be very fair and very real. But I also wanted to say that they run it like a business.”
This is a point worth noting. The majority of the centers are run by private contractors for profit. They are not run like schools or hospitals. Even prisons are not run like prisons. Business rules often take precedence over due diligence. Aisha premiered at the Tribeca Festival in New York before moving on to the London Film Festival. I wonder if Frank even has any sense of other countries having similar problems with their immigration systems.
“A conversation developed about immigration systems in general, and I learned, no, we’re not alone,” he says. “What I found really interesting was how this system speaks to our past. It’s another repressive system like the industrial schools. I think the last mother and child home was closed in 1995. And the first direct supply center was opened in 1999. There are conversations about how these systems were developed profitably.”
Berry is just as pleasant as his humane films suggest. A fresh-faced lad on the verge of early middle age, he grew up in the Foxfield corner of Raheny. Unsurprisingly for someone who has devoted himself to filmmaking, he admits that as a young man he never expected to be where he is today. Berry didn’t really think about the medium as a career until he took a video class in college.
“When I was younger, my father was always an avid amateur photographer,” says Berry. “And he used to film us with cine cameras. People would say that I got my filmmaking skills from my father. But as I got older I started thinking, and I feel like I inherited filmmaking more from my mother. She’s just a great listener and someone with a very strong belief in social justice. I’ve listened to her all my life. Their values are in the movies.”
I love filmmaking and I’m drawn to the prospect of doing something about my own story, my own life. That’s always there. Otherwise, I just come across a topic and realize that it just won’t let me go
That makes sense. Each of his three dramatic moves sprang from his attention to excluded voices. Ballymun Lullaby started as a community video while working as a teacher. I Used To Live Here, starring the now busy Jordanne Jones, started out as a documentary and turned into a drama. Like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, he has developed a unique approach to his work. I wonder if he would ever consider breaking with that to make a film that didn’t emerge from such research. Maybe a rom com? Stranger things have happened.
“No rom-com I guess,” he says with a smile. “I’m not attracted to them at the moment. I love filmmaking and I’m drawn to the prospect of doing something about my own story, my own life. That’s always there. Otherwise, I just come across a topic and realize that it just won’t let me go.”
In any case, he’s now promoted to a different league. Aisha played at Tribeca. It stars your wife from Marvel and your husband from The Crown. One wonders how this came about.
At the cast and crew screening, a friend of a crew member stopped by and they said they heard Josh was in the film, but they waited for him to show up. That’s a pretty good compliment for Josh
“Letitia has the script. It ended up in her office and she asked if she could be considered – very humbly,” he says. “I’ve been watching them for maybe eight to ten years. She was amazing in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove. We spoke on the phone and found that we are both driven by the same beliefs.”
Born in Guyana, raised in north London, Wright had her own challenges playing a Nigerian in Dublin, but most Irish viewers will be more focused on how good (or bad) Josh O’Connor – a middle-class lad from Cheltenham is – gets by as a working-class dub. Brilliant as it turns out. Bent over and reserved, he is hardly recognizable in the role, despite no visible external changes. Berry explains that O’Connor worked hard on his accent with actor Emmet Kirwan and that the two would exchange voice messages in the run-up to filming. But it’s not just about the accent. It’s also about posture.
“At the cast and crew preview, a friend of a crew member came by and they said they heard Josh was in this movie, but they were waiting for him to show up. That’s a pretty good compliment for Josh.”
Over the course of his career, Berry transitioned from working with amateur actors to established stars such as Wright and O’Connor. He explains that no major change in approach is required.
“When I was working with non-professionals on my first two films, I had to find a way to make them comfortable – to let their true selves come out,” says Berry. “I quickly realized that working with well-known actors wasn’t far off. We talked about the themes of the film early on – and made sure everyone knew what film we were making. And we would build on those early conversations.”
Aisha lands in a different cinematic setting than the one Michael Inside welcomed five years ago. The film has been sold to Sky and will be available to download for millions of home viewers the same day it hits theaters. I wonder what kind of effect Berry hopes this will have. A new system is to replace direct supply in 2024. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from his research.
“Shorter waiting times,” he says. “Own accommodation. Just fewer barriers and more respect.”
That doesn’t sound like much to ask.
Aisha is in theaters and available to stream November 17th