IN the arresting opening scene of the new Irish film, The Other Side Of Sleep, a young woman, Arlene, awakes to find herself lying in a forest beside the murdered body of a girl.
That this girl, wrapped in blankets, appears in repose sets the tone of dream-like eeriness that permeates the film, but she also becomes a source of fixation for Arlene, a chronic sleepwalker who is working through grief of her own against the backdrop of parochial, small town life.
For director Rebecca Daly, the idea for her debut feature came from a similar starting point.
“I think for me, particularly myself and the co-writer Glenn Montgomery, when we were writing it we were very struck by photographs in newspapers of girls who had been missing or who were found murdered, and you know just the particular pose that was chosen in each case and how they become sort of iconic and separate from the person themselves.”
This idea of a separation of the real person from an image became more pronounced when Daly noted the treatment of one murder victim whose body was found wrapped in a duvet in a shopping centre carpark in Northern Ireland.
“We really wanted to explore this idea of the discrepancy between the character of a person who’s murdered, the actual character, and the character that’s sometimes reported in newspapers and kind of becomes the gossip in the town. And often there’s a lot of speculation, usually about the sexual behaviour of the girl or if she was a drug user, or whatever. There’s all these questions often asked.”
In this particular instance, Daly noted that the anecdotes the journalist had accumulated contained contradictory elements.
“I guess maybe that was the point,” she reflects. “That it was impossible to establish the truth of the person because some people were saying, ‘ah yeah, she’s a drug user and she’s a prostitute’, and other people were saying ‘no, she was a lovely girl’. But it just seems like after she had died there was this sort of assassination on her character and it was awful what had happened to her, obviously horrific, and then there’s another layer of this after she’s dead she has no control over.”
In the film, as fingers point at a possible suspect, the deceased becomes demonised in some quarters. Already living a ghost-like existence, Arlene finds herself increasingly drawn towards the dead girl and her family.
“She has this big grief in her history but she expresses it in a different way, by repressing things,” says Daly. “She’s never really learned how to connect with people and then it all gets channelled into this. This is how she finally learns how to deal with her grief, by sort of spying on another family’s grief. So I’m interested, I guess, in characters behaving in unusual ways to things like trauma.”
The film rests on the slender shoulders of Antonia Campbell-Hughes. As well as receiving a nomination for Best Actress at this year’s IFTAs, alongside Rebecca Daly’s nomination for Best Director, Campbell-Hughes, who made her breakthrough in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, was also a recipient of one of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival’s Shooting Stars awards. Supporting her is a cast that includes Olwen Fouéré, Cathy Belton and Gina Moxley, as well as a host of non-professional actors.
“I wanted that sense of authenticity as well for the area,” says Daly, who set the story deep in the Irish midlands. Having grown up in Sussex in England and Naas in County Kildare, and as the daughter of parents from a village in Longford, it was a landscape with which she was familiar.
“It’s like everywhere else was developed during the boom, like on the coast and the cities, and it was kind of forgotten in the midlands,” she notes.
“And it had this particular sort of landscape that I was drawn to as well because it’s all hills and fields. You know, you go down a road and it looks the same as the next road, so you have this idea that you could disappear and never come back because it all looks the same. There’s no sea, no mountains, nothing defining it. So I like that, because it’s mysterious and hard to pin down.”
It’s a far cry from Cannes, where The Other Side Of Sleep not only became the first Irish film by an Irish woman to be included in the festival, but was also made with the assistance of the Cannes Cinéfondation Résidence du Festival, the sort of endorsement that recognises that Daly’s is a distinctive voice in cinema.
The Other Side Of Sleep has a gala preview screening today at 6.20pm at the IFI in Dublin, followed by a public interview with director Rebecca Daly. It opens at Triskel Christchurch on Sunday, at 8.30pm, Mar 18, followed by a Q&A session with the director.