Tribeca 2019: Nodlag Houlihan On ‘Reality Baby’ And Teen Pregnancy

Nodlag Houlihan’s latest short film, Reality Baby, follows a group of teenage girls as a sexual health programme brings them in contact with the realities of motherhood.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge chatted to Nodlag about coming up with the idea for this touching documentary, capturing intimate moments, teenage pregnancy, and much more.

Q: I have memories of doing a similar parenthood experiment at school, only with a bag of flour instead of a reality baby. Unfortunately for my flour baby, he ended up being used as a goalpost at lunchtime! Did you ever do a similar exercise at school?

A: I didn’t. In fact, I hadn’t heard about this programme at all until a couple of years ago when I was working on a filmmaking project with another youth group (in that instance, they were making the films and I was a facilitator). We were brainstorming documentary ideas when one of their leaders mentioned the reality dolls. It wasn’t feasible to film it that time, but it sounded so intriguing that the idea stayed with me and eventually became Reality Baby.

Q: Can you tell us more about why you were drawn to this subject and exploring this motherhood experiment?

A: Around that time I facilitated a number of filmmaking projects for young people and I was struck by the great energy and exuberance of the young people involved. They could be so grown-up and serious one moment and then the next minute running around screaming and laughing like little kids. There were always dramatic highs and lows, as their energy changed over the day – it was exhilarating. I hadn’t really encountered that world since I was a teenager myself and I’d forgotten what it was like.

When we were coming up with ideas to cover in the films we discussed so many issues and subjects they were passionate about. I was fascinated by the direct and honest way they spoke with the youth workers and the mutual respect and affection they had for each other. The experience of being part of their world for awhile really stayed in my mind and I thought about it a lot. When that happens, you know you’ve probably got a potential documentary subject.

Screen Ireland provide some funding for shorts and run a funding round for documentary shorts once a year so I decided to apply. I knew that was the world I wanted to explore and my way into it in the film is through the reality dolls programme. I proposed a short which would just follow the group over the course of their interaction with the dolls.

I felt as a subject it captured all those contrasts and oppositions – it’s really serious because it’s about teen pregnancy (which would have very serious implications if it were to happen to one of them) and they really struggle with it, because it is challenging to look after the babies properly, but at the end of the day they’re dolls and they have a lot of fun with that too.

One minute they’re grappling with the pressures of having a new-born, the next they’re a bunch of kids playing with toys, and they give themselves wholeheartedly over to each state as they encounter it.

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Q: The film observes these young women through a unique learning experience. What did you learn/take away from the time you spent with them?

A: I loved that in the scene where they meet up after their night caring for the babies they spontaneously began discussing what they’d learned and one of the things that Chloe says is that she’s realised that if you had a baby to look after you wouldn’t have time to cuddle up with your own mother. I interpret that as her realising, in a very real way, that once you have a child you cease to be a child yourself – I think that’s true no matter how young you are when you become a mother – you won’t be a child any longer.

Q: I really enjoyed seeing the mothers and daughters interact while looking after their reality babies. What is your fondest memory from making the film?

A: There are so many. It was such an easy film to make because the group were very enthusiastic – they really wanted to do it so they just ran with it. I loved filming the scene on the beach when their energy levels were really high, but also the one in the take-away because I knew they were just really tired and low and it had a totally different mood, but both completely authentic.

Q: Through a vérité style, yourself and DOP Kate McCollough create an intimate tone and capture the understated beauty of the town. Can you talk about your approach?

A: I wanted to capture that unique atmosphere and energy I spoke about and have the audience experience it the way I had. We knew movement and the ability to get right in amongst the group would be key. Kate shot on the Alexa Mini and used an Easyrig brace so that she could hand-hold and move freely around the group. I wanted to open with a really busy, high-energy scene.

The very first thing we filmed was that moment the school bell goes on Friday afternoon and they burst out of the front door – we just stayed with them for the next hour or so and they were constantly in motion. I didn’t know how it would go, because we’d never rehearsed at all and they hadn’t even met the crew properly, but they really ran with it and it does have a great energy as a result.

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Q: The film has started its festival run and will soon at Tribeca. What are your hopes for the film and the way audiences will engage with it?

A: We’ve had a couple of festival screenings in Ireland already and it’s gone across really well, but even here different audiences respond completely differently to the film. It always interesting to watch with an audience – they find different things amusing or strange depending on who they are and context is really important – the other shorts in the programme have a big impact.

I’m very excited to see the other short films it will screen with in Tribeca because they all tackle the topic of growing up as a girl and we haven’t been in a themed programme like that before. It will be fascinating to see how they inform each other and alter the experience of viewing. I’ve been funded by Culture Ireland to travel to the festival so I hope to learn a lot and get a good chance to talk to the audience in Q&A afterwards.

Q: Can you tell us about the team at Zucca Films and the vision you have?

A: The team is me and my partner Matt Leigh, we both work freelance too but we formed the company to develop projects we are really passionate about. We work mostly, but not exclusively, in documentary. I try not to put too many restrictions on what we so or don’t do – it’s really anything that sparks our interest and we feel intrigued to pursue. We’ve worked with other directors too and partnered with other small producers on projects.

For the last few years we worked on a co-production called My Trans Life – Matt directed and I was a writer, which was about a group of young transgender people in Ireland and we followed them over a period of years.

Previous to that I produced a feature, called Broken Song, about a group of young hip hop artists and a young urban soul singer in inner city Dublin. I feel there’s a connection between those two projects and Reality Baby because they’re all exploring themes about growing up and finding your path and they all touch on aspects of the social changes that are happening and have happened in Ireland.

Q: What is next for you?

A: I have a few ideas I’m developing at the moment – one is for a documentary series which uses Reality Baby as a jumping off point – and we’ve also received some development money from RTE (the public service broadcaster in Ireland) which is for a documentary about a Dublin street photographer.

That will ultimately be an hour-long film for television and it’s a co-production with the same producer we worked on My Trans Life with so we’re looking forward to starting some filming for that in the coming weeks.


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