Hush-a-Bye Baby

By Margaret Dickinson, Anne Cottringer and Julian Petley

Derry Film and Video Collective’s Hush-a-Bye Baby (1989) was first conceived after the 1983 Abortion referendum and the scandal of Anne Lovett, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who died giving birth in a field in the South of Ireland. Similar tragedies came briefly to light in the North – a newborn baby found dead in a wardrobe, an infant left on the porch of a Catholic church, a baby’s body in a garden – then the rule of silence returned.

The film confronts the audience with the issue by examining the subjective emotions of a young woman forced to contemplate her unwanted pregnancy. It exposes some of the most inaccessible realms of identity and makes visible the way an individual is influenced by the shibboleths of a particular community, in this case Catholic, nationalist, Republican Derry.

From the outset, the Derry Collective was a project of reclamation, a reaction to the invasion of outside media coverage since 1969, most of which they considered ‘sensationalist, superficial, interventionist and censored’. The Collective’s approach sought to enable people from Derry to make their own images and to broadcast indigenous stories from the community instead of watching themselves translated through foreigners’ eyes. According to Margo Harkin, director of Hush-a-Bye Baby: ‘I have problems with the notion of a community. Who is the community? But at least we lived there. We were part of it. Some likes us and some didn’t, but they knew who we were.’

This familiarity, belonging and access enabled the development of a completely different type of film from the stereotypes of commercial formulae, where real communities are generally nothing more than a backdrop for wish-fulfilment fantasies. Margo Harkin and Stephanie English based the story of Hush-a-Bye Baby on anonymous interviews with young girls who had become pregnant, and ideas drawn from a drama workshop on sex and sexuality entitled ‘No Sex Please, We’re Irish’ which was organised for teenagers from the city’s schools and Youth Training Schemes.

The tight and witty scenarios which resulted came from the daily interactions of Derry life, using the humour, idiom and accent of a local community. These scenarios contributed much more than simply context or credibility. They added a cumulative understanding to the difficulty with which, in the film, Goretti Friel confronts her decision about her pregnancy. She has no judgment free from the spectrum of attitudes played out around her, including the religious bigotry which keeps young girls in a state of ignorance towards their sexuality and maintains pressure against legalising abortion. According to Stephanie English, some of the girls they interviewed ‘knew nothing about contraception, they would say that sex before marriage was against their religion but they wouldn’t know why – it was never explained to them. They were confused about their religion, but they hid their pregnancies because of it. Finally, the film is not about one specific event or character, but is an attempt to look at the issues of sexuality and Irish attitudes to women.

Predictably, the film provoked strong reactions in the local newspaper, the Derry Journal, after its first screening on RTE (Sep 1990).

Sir – If sewage is part of any community then the film Hush-a-Bye Baby is a septic tank. Apart from the low moral tone and gratuitous foul language, this infections little film included the oddity of a Brit speaking bizarre Irish Average Punter

I wish to express my disgust at such a film. It appeared to portray the young teenagers of Creggan and Bogside as crude individuals who thought of nothing but sex... Whilst I would agree that the situation does a rise, even in this ‘modern’ age, I feel the makers could have put their point across with more subtlety. Disgusted Viewer

Sean Carr was correct when he said that Hush-A-Bye Baby lost the opportunity to show the world what the youth of Derry had to endure from the Brits and RUC. The film was eaten up by swearing teenage girls. And as a 17 year old boy, I have yet to meet the amiable Gaelic speaking British sqauddies that appeared in this film. It was a farce.
C. McCeever, Creggan

These are voices of indignation fuelled by political and ethical interests but, significantly, few of the critics dealt with the film’s central issue. Pregnancy outside of marriage remained off the agenda.

By way of answer, the following week brought two affirmative voices:

If language is a reflection of attitudes, maybe it’s our attitudes which need examination. The language used in the film reflected the culture of this city, a culture which conditions women to believe that their bodies are either objects of seduction or objects of production. A culture which encourages men to project their manhood through their sexual prowess... A culture which denies our youth the opportunity of being human and caring and sensitive, given the fact that the education system relegates the majority of them failures at eleven years old, our political system denies them the opportunity of meaningful work, their social values are based on media soaps and English tabloid newspapers and they are brought up within a religions system which tells them they are born sinful and therefore guilty. Mary Nelis

I think they (the critics) are right. There is no pre-marital sex, there is no teenager that swears, no-one in Derry has had an abortion, no one gets alienated from their parents, everyone goes to Mass on Sunday and tops it off with a good bomb-free match at the Brandywell. Santa Claus

Hush-a-Bye Baby has achieved palpable success. It collected excellent ratings on its television transmissions – indeed, on RTE1 it reached number seven, with an audience of 647,000. Yet the Derry Film and Video Collective no longer exists, since funding from Channel 4 has been discontinued. Despite the international acclaim for Hush-a-Bye BabyMargo Harkin has been approached by commercial producers interested in hiring her talent for films of a type she has no interest in making – raising money for further projects without the Channel’s core funding would hardly have been an easy task, so the collective decided to disband rather than limp along.

The irony is that Harkin believes the very success of Hush-a-Bye Baby may have given Channel 4 the excuse they needed to drop the Collective, a move which had been threatened for a couple of years, ever since Tory legislation broke the closed shop on which the workshops were based. Rod Stoneman, Deputy Commissioning Editor for Independent Film and Video, had recently written in Screen (‘Sins of Commission’, Summer 1992) about the reasons which led Channel 4 to a change of policy towards the workshops which they had begun by nourishing, but, in line with the absence of general debate in the area, the underlying issues remain to be discussed.

One of the strengths of a script which passes through this kind of production process is the way that the characters, instead of being inserted into the reassuring fantasy of box-office entertainment formulae, are rooted within the contradictions and sordid compromises of an unglamorised social environment. Could this type of film be made within commercial terms? That is not to ask whether anyone would back it, although this is doubtful, but would anyone from outside have the same type of access to the community to tell such a story? What the disinterested funding of the workshops achieved was the creation of a space where, beyond the predictable documentary output, dangerous subjects could be publicly addressed through the safe distance of fiction. What is at stake if this kind of production does not continue is the loss of this space in which the audience, as well as the film-makers, are able to take risks and be challenged.