A tale of two sisters

Shared psychosis and intergenerational trauma: Northern Irish director Cathy Brady on her blistering debut, Wildfire
By Finn Blythe | Film+TV | 13 September 2021

Grief and reconciliation course through Wildfire, Cathy Brady’s timely and immensely powerful debut feature set in the Irish Borderlands. At its heart is the story of two estranged sisters, reunited after a prolonged period of separation, struggling to come to terms with a shared trauma they have both tried unsuccessfully to repress. The metaphorical parallels to a divided Ireland are clear but Brady’s film goes much further, navigating themes of mental illness, intergenerational trauma and familial grief against the looming uncertainty of Brexit and the reopening of old wounds. 

When we first meet Kelly (superbly played by Danika McGuigan before she tragically passed away in 2019) she is homebound after her long absence, visibly still battling the demons that forced her unexplained departure. Her sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) is initially resentful at being reunited with the woman she long presumed dead, but it’s not long before the two fall back into familiar routines, reigniting a childlike bond which leaves them at odds with the latent macho violence that still hangs heavy over their community. It’s the intensity of this relationship that propels the film at high velocity, prompting an awakening within Lauren of the same psychosis her sister has long suffered from.

As Brady recalls in the conversation below, Wildfire demanded a confrontation with the ghosts of Ireland’s Troubles as well as extensive research into the malignant forms of mental illness it has produced. The result is a brilliantly assured level change from Brady’s previous shorts, and a perfectly timed reminder of Northern Ireland’s ongoing precarity.

Finn Blythe: You’ve recently shown the film in Ireland for the first time. What can you tell me about the film’s reception there and how it’s differed from elsewhere?
Cathy Brady: I’ve been on a virtual journey with this film since Toronto last year so it’s close to a year now. We’ve done a number of festivals virtually but I never really left the house. So only recently did I get to meet the public with it for the first time, which in many ways I think is much more special. I understand the purpose of festivals, but actually we’re hoping that this film goes beyond just people who are film fans, that it can actually tap into something much broader. So it was very special launching the film in Ireland with the theatrical release and at one stage, myself and Nora-Jane, she was with me for a week for press, we turned around to each other and were like, “What has happened? Something has changed. The conversations that we’re having now compared to what we had last year, they’re so rich, so complex.”

Every single journalist had a completely different angle. It’s been a stark change and what I’ve found is it’s much more reflective. If we’re to talk about the difference between Ireland and the UK, so much of the things in Wildfire are inherent, so people get it. And it was the small stuff, it wasn’t necessarily political themes, it was stuff like family dynamics, withholding information, the repression of women’s emotions, which are very universal but there was something in the Irish culture and the Irish psyche that seemed to be revving people up. 

“We’re hoping that this film goes beyond just people who are film fans, that it can actually tap into something much broader.”

FB: This idea of repressed trauma came from the story of Ursula and Sabina Eriksson [Swedish twin sisters who ran across the M6 in 2008], which I can still remember watching live. How did that initially resonate with you?
CB: I remember it was so startling and I remember being really shook. For me it presented an existential moment because I couldn’t understand why a bond so powerful would lead to that moment and what they were doing. My first impression was that it must have been an act of suicide, but as the documentary moved on you realise it wasn’t, especially when the officers ask one of the sisters whether they’ve ever attempted to take their own life and she says quite blankly, “No.” And yet a couple of hours later she threw herself in front of a car. So it made me realise how powerful feeling and thought and the brain can be, especially when it overwhelms someone and how little we actually know about how the brain works sometimes. Danika and Nora-Jane had both had bereavements of suicide within their families, so we were very, very cautious about how we approached the project.

First we were like, if we’re going to tell this story we need to start with research. The Wellcome Trust came in and that allowed us access to some of the leading psychiatrists and psychologists, we met a lot of support workers, in fact we also spoke to two sisters who had a shared psychosis. What we realised is a psychosis manifests very differently for each person, so it kind of gave us some leverage to begin telling our own story. Also with psychosis, it’s often from a trauma that’s been repressed, so we realised that we needed to know everything about these characters’ back-story. It really was a long and complicated five-year journey making this film and I do feel the film feels different for it because we were led very much by fact as we were searching for our fiction. 

FB: I wanted to talk to you about that process of developing the script with Danika and Nora-Jane. You mention they both have experience of suicide in their family and the performances feel so grounded in reality and truth, I just wondered what they brought to that process?
CB: Each actress has their own process so it’s hard to give details, but we did a lot of physicality workshops because for us it was important that the sisters speak and walk similarly. So it looks effortless but they did a lot of work to really feel as though they were two halves of one. Those physicality workshops really unleashed the amount of energy and ferocity we would need. A very early workshop helped inspire the dance scene, which feels very primal, very raw, in a way that we don’t usually see female characters on-screen. Then we did some real-time improvisations where we went to Ireland for a week and tested out some of the theories of what we’d been building in terms of backstory.

What really came through with those real-time improvisations, I’m talking improvisations that went on for four or five hours, was the nuance of the detail and often the smallness of the moment that felt incredibly epic in its intimacy. For Kelly, for example, we wanted a sense that she was living rough but squatting, I guess somebody who’s trying to live outside the system. We spoke to a woman whose sister had been missing and what it meant when she returned. Again it was the small details, like whenever she hugged her sister for the first time she realised she was skin and bone. It was just really heartbreaking and powerful but it was about detail.

FB: There are small moments throughout the film that illustrate the generational divides within Borderlands communities, especially between pre and post-Troubles generations. How big a part was that in your research?
CB: Once we brought the story to Borderlands in Northern Ireland the story really took root and we were really drawn to this area of research that talks about intergenerational trauma, which is basically a trauma that hasn’t been processed from one generation so it’s actually passed onto the offspring. There’s a very high suicide rate in Northern Ireland and incredibly high usage of anti-depressants, so it made me realise that yes, the generation who lived through the Troubles are still very affected in many ways but equally, this generation who hasn’t even experienced the Troubles are suffering.

There were powerful case studies done on intergenerational trauma through European funding, so we were reading interviews and kind of just hearing how it was affecting the everyday. What became very powerful was that the truth felt like it was dangerous. In some cases bringing up the past within families, not every family, but sometimes it’s better not to delve back into the past because we need to move on for the sake of peace. In many ways if you zoom out further, in a sense that’s what the Good Friday Agreement was about as well, we had political prisoners released back into communities who would have murdered or maimed people and everyone, for the sake of peace, had to live with it and get on with it. So the ripple effect is apparent.  

“Yes, the generation who lived through the Troubles are still very affected in many ways but equally, this generation who hasn’t even experienced the Troubles are suffering.”

Aidan Monaghan/Wildfire

FB: Throughout a lot of the film, men are presented as reminders of a former violence. They’re a more obvious expression of violence and in a way that heightens the internalised violence among the female cast which is much more insidious and develops in ways that make it more difficult to address. Did you consciously look at the experience of women within the context of intergenerational violence?
CB: With the case studies we were reading it tended to be that the people who were putting themselves forward were women. So there were a lot of stories from mothers talking about their father or their mother who had been killed. But even if you look at therapy, often when therapy starts it’s, “What is your relationship to your mother? What is your relationship to your grandmother?” So it’s this female nurturing role that has a big part of how a person learns to deal with the world. Our research on psychosis was constantly bringing us back to the female frame of the nurturing, or the lack of nurturing, and in many ways it was exciting because it was at odds with the traditional way of telling a story set in Northern Ireland which is normally about men and their guns.

Our intention in this film was not to take a side, we just wanted to drill into a very close sibling dynamic. What we realised is that their mother was present for them in their lives, I guess in the only way she could be, but I feel like she might have had a lot of blind spots and you can see how that affected each sister. We always had this image of their mother as someone strikingly beautiful, I always imagined her with red lipstick, someone who would stop people in the street with her looks. And I think in a small, provincial Catholic town that can be scandalous. So was she able to make herself smaller in order to feel safer? And maybe sometimes she wasn’t. I think that’s where Kelly gets that wilder side of her whereas Lauren sees the dangers in being yourself too much because it makes you an outcast. 

“Our research on psychosis was constantly bringing us back to the female frame of the nurturing, or the lack of nurturing.”

FB: I did want to talk to you about red. It was something I’d noticed a lot in the film, before I re-acquainted myself with the footage of Ursula and Sabina on the motorway and of course one of them is wearing a red coat –
CB: That’s right! I totally forgot about that. 

FB: The presence of red grows with the film to the extent that as soon as both Lauren and Kelly are wearing red in the climactic final fifteen minutes you know you’re in for a nervy ending. How conscious was the use of red in the film?
CB: It all stemmed from this image of a stunningly beautiful woman wearing red lipstick in a small provincial town and I remember in the workshops we tried different coats for backstory. I remember even bringing in a fur jacket but there was something that just didn’t feel right. Then I thought back to the red lipstick and I thought that it would be fitting if she was wearing a red coat. So it really stemmed from that. And what’s really striking is we were meant to shoot the film in the summer, and for one reason or another the film got delayed and we ended up being pushed into the autumn. But what was fascinating was how the landscape started to change, it went all burnt and golden and red-y brown, so it was like the film was telling us what it needed to be. It’s got that fiery kind of vividness, and there’s such passion and fire in the colour red that it made so much sense that that would be the colour for the mother. 

Wildfire is in UK cinemas now.

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