In the United States alone during the 1950s and 1960s, more than one-and-a-half-million women and girls were forced to give their babies up for adoption. This was part of a larger trend that ran throughout Western countries during that time. It was supposed to be a period of prosperity and contentment, and unwanted pregnancies clashed with that image. At the same time, sexual activity among young people was on the rise, while sexual education was woefully inadequate. The result was an awful lot of “good girls” becoming pregnant. Their parents would spirit them away to maternity homes, hidden from the world until the time came to give up their babies.
The only options for these women were forfeiting their children or facing being disowned by their parents — or, if they were adults, the loss of their jobs. The myth is that all these babies were gratefully handed over by “bad girls” who couldn’t otherwise take care of them. The new dramatic film Philomena breaks apart that myth. And there’s a 2012 documentary called A Girl Like Her, which does the same.
Philomena is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who was one of those good girls gone “bad.” In the ’50s, her father abandoned her to a convent after she got pregnant, and the nuns later sold her son to an American couple without her knowing. Fifty years on, Philomena (played with wonderful nuance by Judi Dench) goes in search of her child with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Sixsmith later wrote a book about the experience that became the basis for the movie. While Philomena is not issue-focused, there is enough information dropped about forced adoptions in the story to make anyone’s blood boil. Already, the book and film have helped spur a movement to get the Irish Magdalene asylums to open up their records about their practices.
Philomena is a very funny, gentle and occasionally sorrowful little film. But it’s also just one woman’s story. A Girl Like Her is about many women who went through similar trials to that of Philomena Lee. The documentary focuses on forced adoptions in America during the same time that she lost her son in Ireland. Maternity homes weren’t quite the same as the Magdalene institutions — they didn’t use the girls for free labor like the asylums, which helped cover costs by acting as laundries. But they were still grim environments for their charges, who would face constant shaming until the time came for their babies, which they were often forced to have since abortion was not an option, to be given up.
The doc is a marvel of formal invention. The visuals consist only of footage from instructional films from the period, while the audio is mostly new interviews with various women telling their stories. Occasionally we hear the sounds from the newsreels, the narration in that archetypical chipper male voice. There’s an eerie clash between the sunnily innocent facade that the media presented for the country and the darker underbelly that these women reveal. America talked up one set of values but practiced a far different kind with anyone who threatened the image that society wanted for itself. Besides acting as an avenue for these forgotten people to tell their stories, A Girl Like Her is a brutal examination of cultural hypocrisy.
Raising awareness of buried issues often rides on giving the ignored a voice, and the interviewees in this film exist only as voices to the audience. Director Ann Fessler adapted the film from her book, The Girls Who Went Away, using a few of the more than one hundred women whom she interviewed for the book as subjects. They tell us of their socially enforced naivete, of their adolescent passions, of their confusion upon becoming pregnant and of their ultimate humiliation and devastation. Though it runs less than 50 minutes long, the film works as a sickening punch to the gut. Viewed in conjunction with Philomena, it does a great job of contextualizing Philomena Lee’s situation as a young adult, even though the doc takes place an ocean away from the events of the dramatized film. Repression of women is quite similar across borders, after all.
Separately, both movies are great, though the edge goes to the doc. A Girl Like Her has much less fat on it, and Philomena occasionally indulges in what feels like artifice — the snobby guy and sincere old woman dynamic between Coogan and Dench, most notably. But taken together, both films are stronger for the pairing, reinforcing one another in tone and historical context. They make for one of the best, and most cry-worthy, double features of the year.
Philomena is now playing in theaters nationwide. A Girl Like Her can be purchased on DVD through its website.