If you don’t have any information about Pavee Lackeen prior to seeing it, you will be forgiven for thinking that what appears on the screen is a documentary, although soon enough the use of rehearsed countershots reveal the film belongs in the fictional genre, or, perhaps more adequately, fictional documentary.
The winner of the 10th Annual Satyajit Ray Feature Film Award at the 2005 London Film Festival, the idea for Pavee Lackeen was inspired by the book that director Perry Ogden made about the children of Irish travellers in 1999, called ‘Pony Kids’. When he re-visited some of the children featured in his book, he discovered a number of them were passing through the juvenile courts. Ogden managed to gain access to the Children’s Court in Dublin and the film is based on the stories and situations he observed over the course of two years.
Paveen Lacken is a naturalistic, detached look at the life of traveller girl Winnie (Winnie Maughan) against the background of her precarious home, headed by the alcoholic Rose (Rose Maughan). The film alternates between the housing drama of the Maughans and Winnie’s school problems and outings in town, including a hapless attempt at shoplifting. Nothing much happens, except for the occasional visit from social workers and an uncle who has become a traveller activist. The family’s forced move up the road to another trailer located by a muddy puddle is used to highlight the plight of the family and travellers in general.
One of the questions that arise after a viewing of Pavee Lackeen is why didn’t the director make a documentary instead of adopting this hybrid style that feels more like an aesthetic cul-de-sac than a subversion of formal rules. Those who don’t know anything about Irish travellers are left wanting some some historic contextualisation. The small bits of information casually thrown at the audience through characters’ lines are not enough.
The film seems to have been conceived under the belief that total naturalism equals unadultered authenticity and realism, but that is not necessarily the case. Even though everything looks factual and real in this film, and this impression is reinforced by the now established grammar of gritty, hand-held digital realism, Pavee Lackeen never seems to erupt into anything close to the truth. Truth doesn’t always have to have a name (a good example of how a similar film works well is the Dardenne Brothers L’Infant, due out in March), but we know it when we see it. Ogden scratches at but never quite sinks his nails into it.
The low-key cinematography and the downbeat style have their moments of allure, even poetry and the subject matter is potentially interesting, although it is not explored in a way that makes it seem relevant. Ogden deserves some credit since this is his debut feature, but his film lacks the punch that Dogme 95-style cinema needs to involve the audience.