There is a lack of variation among the numerous documentaries discussing historical trauma, whether they focus on war casualties, abuse survivors, or their descendants. These films often follow a formulaic structure, similar to a criminal trial, with clear introductions, systematic evidence presentation, and emotional testimonies from those affected.
To put it plainly, 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 operated as assembly lines for adoption, shame, and suffering – stays close to the established pattern mentioned earlier. However, to continue with the legal analogy, she constructs her arguments with the skill of a top-tier prosecutor. With meticulous attention to detail, she begins by presenting a broader perspective on how a patriarchal, religious fixation on controlling women’s bodies, combined with the political climate, allowed for the growth of “industrial” schools, Magdalene laundries, and mother-and-baby homes. Often managed by nuns who lived comfortably on the upper floors while the unmarried mothers were relegated to squalid conditions in the basement, these institutions have only recently been exposed for their horrors. The first story featured is that of the 796 infants and children who died at the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Galway, and were buried in pits that were only uncovered when the land was being repurposed for development.
Harkin delves deeper into the subject by conducting interviews with journalists, politicians, legal scholars, and historians. He also includes perspectives from poets, like Jessica Traynor, who share their reflections on the suffering experienced in the remnants of these institutions. Testimonies from children of mothers who survived these homes and are still seeking answers about missing siblings are also included, along with accounts from survivors themselves.
Although the stories presented by the women are incredibly disturbing and revolting, it is striking how few tears or outbursts there are. Instead, these women – mostly female in our encounters – recount their experiences with tight, composed voices, still filled with anger but presented in a rehearsed, almost ritualistic manner. The intense emotional display takes place in composer Deirdre Gribbin’s string-heavy score, which is both powerfully melancholic and sharp enough to maintain control. Overall, this documentary is nearly flawless and serves as an outstanding example of film-making.