Many documentaries cover historical trauma, whether it involves war casualties, abuse survivors, or their descendants. These films typically follow a structured format, similar to that of a criminal trial, with opening arguments, evidence presentation, and emotional victim testimonies.
To put it bluntly, Margo Harkin’s documentary examining the atrocities of Ireland’s institutions for unwed mothers and their babies – which were essentially run by the government and the church and produced children for adoption, shame, and suffering – follows a familiar pattern. However, to continue the legal comparison, she presents her arguments with the precision of a skilled prosecutor in a high court. She begins by taking a broader look at how a patriarchal focus on controlling women’s bodies, combined with the political climate, allowed for the existence of “industrial” schools, Magdalene laundries, and mother-and-baby homes. These facilities were often run by nuns who lived comfortably on the upper floors while the unmarried mothers who were sent there to give birth in secret lived in squalor in the basement. These so-called homes have only recently been exposed for their horrors. The film starts with the tragic story of the 796 infants and children who died at the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Galway and were buried in mass graves that were only discovered when the land was being repurposed for development.
Harkin’s focus is on the widespread horror that unfolds as he interviews journalists, politicians, legal scholars, and historians. He also includes the perspectives of poets like Jessica Traynor, who read pieces that reflect the pain of these places and the remnants that they hold. The stories of sons and daughters who grew up with mothers who survived these homes and are still trying to find missing siblings are also shared, along with accounts from survivors themselves.
Although the stories of the latter are extremely disturbing and sickening, it is striking how few tears or raised voices are present. Instead, the individuals we encounter, mostly women, share their experiences with tense and steady voices, still filled with anger but controlled through repetition. The intense emotions are captured in composer Deirdre Gribbin’s string-based score, which is both powerful and melancholic, yet also sharp enough to maintain balance. Overall, this documentary film is almost flawless and serves as an exemplary piece of filmmaking.