Margo Harkin’s Stolen is a raw, powerful and insightful documentary that gives a voice to the survivors and victims of Ireland’s mother and baby homes.
Ireland, for all its beauty and its culture, has some very dark secrets. Margo Harkin’s Stolen is a poignant and powerful documentary that explores the prejudices, injustices and shameful truths of the country’s mother and baby institutions, giving a voice to the generations of young women and children affected by them. It looks at the repercussions of systemic abuse, neglect and abhorrent treatment, and pointedly asks why the Irish government and the Catholic church could fund, sanction and – even more ashamedly – excuse such horrors.
Alongside industrial schools for ‘unruly boys’ and Magdalene laundries for ‘fallen women’, the 20th century in Ireland saw a consistent number of mother and baby homes. These ‘homes’ were large houses, often run by nuns and operated by both the Catholic church and the Irish free state, where unwed women were sent to give birth. These babies were then in turn either shipped off to be adopted, integrated back into the institutions themselves, or buried in mass unmarked graves.
Harkin utilises interviews from researchers, journalists and educators to paint a startling picture of just how horrific these homes were, using archival footage for visual reference. It’s a picture of patriarchal and religious pressure, and the consistent persecution of young women for getting pregnant, despite the fact that they clearly did not do so by themselves. The powerful focal point of Stolen, however, is the incomprehensible number of preventable deaths and the heartbreaking stories from survivors, both the mothers who lived there and the children who were born there. Interspersed with excerpts from poems, books and papers read by actors, the film lays bare the inhumane nature of these institutions and the resounding repercussions they had for generations.
Stolen tells stories with both tragic and positive outcomes, and doesn’t shy away from shocking its audience. It rattles off statistics – 9000, or 15% of all babies born, died in the mother and baby homes between the years of 1922 and 1998 – and is relentless, if a little too sedately paced, in its diligence. But it never fails to treat its subjects with respect, giving them room to breathe and tell their stories on their own terms and in their own words. It’s a film that is quietly insidious with its anger, an undercurrent of disappointment, shock and despair at the lack of results from various inquiries constantly simmering under the surface.
Harkin has crafted something that is insightful, respectful and unafraid to show the truth in all its ugliness. Stolen is a film about the lives, opportunities and dignities taken from young women who did nothing to deserve it. It’s a film that is raw and powerful, a testament to the bravery, determination and resilience of the survivors and campaigners. They, along with the thousands of women, men and children deserve answers, acknowledgement and justice.
Stolen will be released in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on 3 November, 2023.