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Q&A with Ross McClean, dir. Hydebank - Clermont 2020

Tuesday 11 February 2020, by Abla Kandalaft, Clotilde Couturier

Forced onto the Northern Irish countryside, Hydebank Wood Facility currently houses 104 young male offenders. Four years into his sentence, Ryan is still coming to terms with the cause of his imprisonment. The unlikely catharsis to his inner demons? A flock of sheep living inside the prisons walls.

Hydebank has certainly stood out in this year’s festival competitions for its particularly uplifting tone and heartwarming depiction of its subjects, human and animal. Director Ross McClean offers a sensitive, non-judgmental and intimate portrayal of young man ultimately trying to rebuild a life for himself through a new-found passion.

More on the film...

How did you come across Ryan and what made you want to tell his story?

My first experience inside Hydebank was Christmas a few years ago to play a football match (we were defeated 22 - 3 by the prisoners). My interest was piqued by a small flock of sheep grazing alongside the pitch; all framed by tall barbed wire fences that surround the compound. Naturally, I investigated further and following a number of letters, phone calls and return visits I was introduced to ‘Hydebank’s Shepherd’. It was during our first encounter when I realised that, indeed, the situation of sheep in a prison was compelling; but what was most impactful was Ryan’s own nature and his bond with these animals.

Was he happy to collaborate from the outset?

I had been working with a Belfast-based theatre company on another project in Hydebank. During this time I began to form relationships with the staff and prisoners, namely Ryan, and we built up a good level of trust. I had been transparent with my intentions from the offset and we had come to understand each other before the camera was turned on.

Maintaining anonymity of prisoners tends to be protocol in UK prisons; alongside the fact that Ryan has previously been negatively presented in the press meant that we began filming with the objective of respecting this anonymity. When Ryan and I started reviewing some of the footage he asked why his face didn’t appear. It became clear that he didn’t want to be hidden. A conversation with the prison concluded that it was ultimately Ryan who would decide whether or not he would be identifiable. In his words, he wanted to show that ‘prisoners don’t just sit about doing nothing all day’. I believe he was determined to demonstrate his positive journey since working alongside the sheep inside Hydebank; and for him this film may have the possibility to offer some form of absolution.

Is this prison unique in keeping sheep on the premises?

The sheep were introduced to Hydebank a few years ago as part of an animal therapy rehabilitation initiative for the prisoners. It was the first of its kind in the UK to offer this type of programme; an idea conceived by a member of staff who runs a farm on the outside. He believed in the therapeutic potential of animals to have a positive effect on the offenders. In Ryan’s case, a city boy who hadn’t seen sheep up close until inside Hydebank, he now aspires to become a sheep farmer with his very own flock when he is released. To me this clearly reinforces the efficacy of the scheme.

Can you tell us a bit more about your choices as a documentary filmmaker? Why did you opt for a more fly-on-the-wall approach as opposed to a more interactive one?

I feel ‘fly on the wall’ can be a problematic term when describing a documentary. For me making this film was an incredibly interactive process. Although I don’t appear in frame, I am there asking the questions, composing the shots and at times directing the action. However, I am aware that the finished piece may feel observational, and this may partly be down to Ryan’s own behaviour in the film. In my opinion he didn’t feel the need to perform for the camera, resulting in an honest impression of his life inside.

Many news broadcasts and sensationalist documentaries focusing on prisons tend to discuss the crime each prisoner has committed at great length. When I was screened the French documentary ‘Si Bleu, Si Calme’ by Elaine de Latour, it was a refreshing change to keep the focus on the human experience inside the enclosed space, irrespective of why the prisoners were put there in the first place. We decided not to concentrate on the past details of Ryan’s crime, instead exploring the person he is at this specific moment in time. We hoped that this would avoid distracting the viewer with the immediate gratification of a sensational event, and allow them the space to experience a more rounded, emotional response to Ryan’s story.

What do you hope the audience will take home from the film?

The encounters we had inside Hydebank left an underscore beneath some of the questions we had entering the process. It is important to consider how our attitudes as a society towards punishment and redemption can affect the individuals within the criminal justice system. Northern Ireland has the highest reoffending rates for young males in the UK. Therefore the system clearly hasn’t been working. This alternative method of rehabilitation is an attempt to tackle this. At a time when many in the UK government share the attitude of locking someone up and throwing away the key, I felt it was important to acknowledge this fairly unorthodox practice of reform within the prison system. I also wanted to provide the viewer with the opportunity to contemplate our perceptions of redemption and empathy through the experiences of someone they may not traditionally relate to.

Would you say that the short film format has given you any particular freedom?

I believe the short format allows for a different form of conversation between the filmmaker and spectator. In this case, it offered us the freedom to be bolder with what facts to reveal. We decided not to give all the answers in a neat package. Instead we felt, in this short space of time, it was better to give an impression of one prisoner’s experience in the unique space which is Hydebank.

More on Ross’s work on his personal website.

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