Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Float Like a Butterfly – a pugilistic examination of being caged into a community that isn’t as free as it supposes (QFT from Friday 11 May)

Compared with the observational style of Pavee Lackeen: The Traveller Girl (2005), Carmel Winters’ new film Float Like a Butterfly has a very definite storyline and character journey.

Frances grows up in a community of Irish Travellers in rural Cork in the mid-1960s. Hazel Doupe plays the girl who idolises Muhammad Ali and would love to meet her hero. She trains on the beach and combines brains and brawn, something that her deceased mother valued, but her father (Dara Devaney) struggles to appreciate. Her Dad takes Frances and little brother Patrick (Johnny Collins) away from the encampment and they head out with their horse-drawn caravan on the road, a traumatic and somewhat circular journey that sees them return poorer in spirit and pocket.

It’s a story about loss: the loss of a bombastic father to prison after giving a vicious Garda officer a lame leg; the loss of a mother after a miscarriage; the loss of education and opportunity when the father is released; the loss of security; and the total lack of agency in a world which favours men and teaches boys to slap girls in order “to act like a man”.

Every face on screen is filled with character. Many scenes are shot from low down, giving a child’s eye viewpoint of the adult interactions. The primitive camping conditions and rich countryside colours are quickly established while a heavy score and some haunting singing by the cast injects the story with a sentimentality which, while somewhat overplayed, is balanced with an honesty about the weaknesses of this free-living.

The Irish Travelling community’s sexism and internal violence is contrasted with the racism and prejudice of those from the more settled community they encounter. One of the most telling scenes takes place in Uncle Bobby’s house: his settled behaviour – a self-imposed imprisonment in a cage of a happy home instead of being ‘free’ to roam in exile – irritates his extended family while his itinerant past upsets his neighbours..

Rather than providing resolution, the contrived ending – it would be impossible not to build up to a fight scene given the boxing references throughout – instead cements the masculine stupidity and grip of power over the women who burst through to explain that there is a better way but don’t seem to be able to escape the patriarchal cage that they have been trapped in.

Spanning all kinds of cinematic genres, Float Like a Butterfly is a coming-of-age movie, a road trip, an examination of filial love, as well as a search for freedom and identity. Ultimately, its success is down to the shining on-screen presence and piercing eyes of Hazel Doupe who pulls her vulnerable, pugilistic character up from the ground, time after time, becoming stronger with every bout and trial.

Float Like a Butterfly will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 17 May.

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