A group of men gather around a table in a community hall. They are flipping through a stack of photographs. One of them points at every new photograph from the stack – “Gone”, “Gone”, “He’s gone” – as the others nod in solemn confirmation. These photos are a catalogue of what one of the film’s subjects later calls a “lost generation” of young people who died because of drugs or crime growing up in the Fatima Mansions.
Director Vinny Murphy shoots his subjects in front of a black curtain. It’s not exactly black-box theatre, though the immediacy of what we see and hear is comparable. The men sit, their faces illuminated by a single light source, and in their own words, recount the horrors and hard times of their lives.
Up to a certain point, all of their stories are the same. Cruel and violent teachers at school, turbulent situations at home and in the neighbourhood. As a group they agree that for a kid at that time the “best place” to be was the streets.
This quickly led to more trouble though, first with school then the law. Tony puts it to the group: “We were punished for being born into poverty, for being born into alcoholism.” Another interviewee, Tom, recalls that having nothing made stealing an essential part of his life. “Whatever you saw that wasn’t chained down you just appropriated it.”
They all speak to a system that funnelled Fatima’s youth from school to industrial schools and then to prison. “Natural progression: leaving school early, sent to Patrick’s then graduate to Mountjoy.”
There were other kids up to the same stuff that they were – kids from Rathgar Road or Dún Laoghaire – but the residents of Fatima were singled out and written off by the authorities, the interviewees say. Petty crimes were treated far more seriously than elsewhere, ensuring Letterfrack or Clonmel filled up.
At Irish industrial schools physical and emotional abuse was allowed to go on unchecked. Tony, the man who was pointing to photos of deceased friends and family at the start of the film, talks about his addiction to heroin, which started in his early teens.
“Addiction touched every door in Fatima,” says Michael, and in the 1980s heroin became a major problem at the flats, particularly for out-of-school youngsters like Tony and himself. Although he didn’t realise it at the time, Tony was using it to self-soothe, to cope with his traumatic experiences of beatings and punishments at school.
Like the other men Murphy profiles, Tony says he found comfort and freedom in heroin. There’s a squeamish section of the film where the men recall dumpster diving for needles at a hospital and washing them in the canal before injecting. Like getting “starred up” to prison from an industrial institute, their drug use progressed from smoking to injecting.
Throughout the film, Murphy includes passages that speak to happier moments of life at the flats. There’s some talk of welcome distractions from the harsher aspects of these troubled years.
Patser May, a championship boxer in his teens, was also a member of Fatima’s giant-killing football team. In a group shot, the men break into excited chatter as they piece together a timeline of Fatima’s successes.
The football team, and the part they played in it, is a particular point of pride for the men. An inter-card says that the team won, on average, three competitions a year for 30 years. They travelled to games hidden in a meat truck.
These are portraits of men told all their lives by authority figures, by teachers in school or police on the streets, that they would amount to nothing. For these beaten-down kids, heroin provided some solace and a feeling of control.
The latter stages of Fatima Was Me City focus on the more recent past. We hear from Michael King, who is in recovery and went back to education and received multiple accreditations. He now works in community-outreach programs. Michael speaks of the need to kill the myth of “once a junkie always a junkie”.
Even getting to the stage where you’re allowed to try to do this is needlessly difficult. Tony recalls having to go back to using to produce the requisite dirty urine samples that would allow him to go to rehab.
Later, Michael recalls a particularly harrowing experience where a doctor refused to offer alternative treatments to methadone, which was causing him great physical distress. He had no option but to rely upon himself to clean up. Michael says that one of his proudest moments was confronting that same doctor some time later as a sober man.
Michael’s story, like those of all of the participants in Murphy’s film, is one that shows a defiant courage as they push through the labels and stigmas that have been with them their whole lives. Michael becomes emotional recalling his recent history. In the spotlight of the film’s spare lighting these men are particularly exposed.
Later, Tony talks about the fear of everyday adult life. How would he cope with the school run? But as he talks we see his expression change to a broad smile. Tony assures the camera that he managed eventually.
Murphy fashions a narrative from the wreckage of memory. The interviews fade in and out frequently. Like thoughtful blinks between sentences. Murphy’s film, and the men’s lives, are full of these ellipses. Lost time, wasted youth, regrets, and now also, an effort to make sense of things, to move forward.
Fatima Was Me City recently played as part of the Dublin International Film Festival a wider release is forthcoming.