Portia A Buckley is a writer–director. She’s a Londoner with an Irish father and two generations of grandmothers who went to Trinity. One of her narrative short films, Birthday Girl, was screened at the Virgin Dublin Film Festival in March, while another, Radiator – a lyrical, if desolate story of two methadone addicts in rural Ireland – is now playing (and available for free viewing) on Nowness.com.
Growing up, Buckley tells me, she didn’t like school – Putney High, in London – but was interested in film. Putting aversion to one side, she chose university over art school. “I had this moment, where I didn’t know whether I was going to be focused enough to learn enough and do my own art. I was only 18 or 19, so I just felt like I wanted to learn a bit more. And I’m so glad that I did that, because definitely at that time I needed structure.”
It worked out: suddenly she began loving school – at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she studied art history. She says the teachers were “really incredible. The professors there were brilliant”.
She ended up following her undergraduate degree with a master’s, writing her thesis on the documentary photography of Nan Goldin and Peter Hujar. By now, she was set on making films, and Tisch Arts School in New York – “where there’s so much other stuff going on” – was most appealing.
Is it necessary to go to film school, I wonder? No, it’s not, is her immediate response. “There’s so much online now, you can hear so many different amazing lectures – you can listen to directors talking about stuff, you know.”
Being able to have a dialogue enables you to get somewhere you wouldn’t have got on your own
But if Buckley is an advocate for working things out yourself, she’s also aware of her privileges. “[At Tisch] I spent five years experimenting and doing different things. But it definitely is a luxury – you get the time to do it. And of course you meet people. I met people from all around the world who were very talented filmmakers. And it’s nice being surrounded by a group of really talented people because it definitely pushes you.”
Connections she made there lasted her: Jomo Fray, who she says is “now blowing up in America”, was her director of photography for Radiator. “I always feel that I was very lucky to work on Radiator with him”, she says, “because after that, he was just shooting features”.
Presumably Radiator played a part in Fray’s success: the visual style of each of Buckley’s films have an excited feeling for beauty that reminds the viewer what cinema is, while remaining spartan of festishisation or baggy virtuosity.
For Buckley, the camera has a particular – and specific – significance. The theme of technology rises again when she speaks about artists who interest her. One is Richard Mosse, the Irish artist who changed the representation of conflict through use of a medium intimately and historically tied to war. He photographed Eastern Congo using Kodak Aerochrome: a film stock that registers the chlorophyll in vegetation in surreal shades of magenta pink, and was used in the Vietnam War to locate enemy encampments. One of his photographs hangs on the third floor of Trinity’s Ussher library.
Buckley started writing her own scripts in Tisch, and has continued – and there’s a good reason for it. “When you’re starting out as a director, it’s really hard to get your hands on a good script. No one’s going to be like: ‘Oh, here’s my brilliant script.’ They’re pretty difficult to find, good scripts, anyway. So, writing your own work was kind of a way of taking control: if you write your own script, you can direct it – it’s your own material. So, that’s how it started.”
Buckley has written her three completed short films with a work partner – Michael Lindley – who she met 10 years ago, and describes an intoxicating process, where work is generally unputdownable, continual, and fun. “Of course, sometimes you have disagreements, but in general that’s for a valid reason – because it isn’t quite there yet. And I think being able to have a dialogue enables you to get somewhere you wouldn’t have got on your own – on both sides.”
You’ve got to come up with an idea, and then not mind spending three or four years working on it
Where they write is significant, showing how rooted in place Buckley’s work is. One of her first projects was a documentary about a priest in Manchester’s Moss Side. “The area had loads of attention in the British media, particularly in the tabloids, in the 90s”, she says. But it was through the subject of the documentary, the priest, that she and Lindley gained a “real” introduction to the community of the area, allowing them to go much further. A total of three films have come about, following extensive research and time spent in Moss Side.
“You’ve got to come up with an idea, and then not mind spending three or four years working on it. You know, that’s a big part of it. So they kind of have to be very specific. You have to be very to it, drawn to a community.” Through interviews with teachers, reformed and current gang members, a theme of “very resilient single mothers began to emerge” which formed the basis for the short Birthday Girl. It also provided the starting point for Your Mother, Buckley’s first feature, which will be shot in October.
Why is Buckley drawn to places she didn’t grow up in? She’s refreshingly practical: “I mean, it depends on how you identify with yourself.” She says that “if you really go into a community and work with a community you end up being able to see it”. Distance, then, isn’t a gulf but a connection: “If you’re too close to something, for me personally – obviously this isn’t across the board – the ability to actually go and watch and absorb” is null.
She says that even though “the stories are set in these backdrops”, they are “essentially universal stories, about family dynamics, over-protective sons, middle-aged women trying to have a relationship with someone, you know?”.
How I actually see my female friends behave, and other women behave, it’s just like an idea of a taboo to show it. And I’m kind of fed up with that
But there’s an “actually”, and Buckley expands on her answer – she identifies directly with the narratives. In Radiator this was “the idea of whether you can escape your past in a small community, and have a new beginning”, which “is a big theme in all my work because that’s a story that’s close to me”. Likewise, when I ask about the opening scene of Birthday Girl – in which the protagonist Bridget, in a pub toilet, washes her armpits and dries them under a hand dryer, beside an onlooker who primly shrouds their eyes – Buckley says, “well, I’ve seen that happen. Several times. Multiple times. My friends have done it”.
The conversation moves towards the representation of women on screen, and she asks, as she has done several times during our conversation, what her interviewer thinks. “A lot of the time, how I actually see my female friends behave, and other women behave, it’s just like an idea of a taboo to show it. And I’m kind of fed up with that. Do you know what I mean?” I do.
When Buckley and Lindley write, they care most about character. But I would venture that this doesn’t come across – their characters aren’t fanciful constructions, but are instead very whole people, inseparable from the relationships we encounter them through. Often this is poignant, suggesting dependency – and its associated injuries – as being fundamentally human. Describing one of Radiator’s protagonists, Buckley says: “Declan’s very up for being dragged down.”
As our conversation draws to a close, it bobs between themes of life’s gravity, interjections of comedy provided by the whirr of a hoover, and manic mid-morning conversation, in the “quiet” French cafe I suggested we meet in. But Buckley is as comfortable tackling big themes – like the “pretty upsetting” lack of community in New York – as she is in the minutiae of conversation. It strikes me that this rhythm is a little like her films – in her words, “kind of dark … with some comedic moments”.