Nell Hensey is changing the reel for girls on film

A student society auditor who also had time to direct a topical short film about sexual assault? Sit down, reader; you can learn a thing or two. Nell Hensey is a twenty-one year old Filipino-Irish student of English with Film from Barefield, Clare, born to an Irish father and a Filipino mother. She is also the auditor of UCDTV and recently directed her first live-action short film, Almost Home, which blends the two famous UCD stories of the Belfield puppy and Old Man Belfield.

The Belfield puppy legend came about when a man dumped his small puppy with a girl waiting at a bus stop, and she went on to hide it in her campus accommodation for almost two weeks (RAs must have been a lot less attentive back then because nowadays, you get a fine when you step one foot out the door with an open beverage). The story of Old Man Belfield, meanwhile, chronicles how he allegedly saved a girl from an assault on campus and now receives free meals from the university for his bravery and heroism.

“The film parallels the two stories to discuss homelessness and women’s public safety”

The film parallels the two stories to discuss homelessness and women’s public safety, two issues that are the centre of our conversations. Although the urban legend of Old Man Belfield concerns rape, Hensey made the conscious effort of centring the events with a mugging, saying “we didn’t really want to go down that route with the film. We were more inspired by the story than trying to replicate it.” Hensey was more interested in discussing the general safety of women; “it addresses the general concept of women’s public safety at night. That was a definitely a big theme for us to explore”. With numerous incidents happening around the UCD area since Old Man Belfield, Almost Home’s relevance is stronger now than ever.

Hensey’s love for film ignited when she was twelve, after a cousin who studied film and lived in LA was visiting Ireland and showed her some of his film reels. Hensey says this was the moment she “realised that you can make a proper career out of film.” After that, Hensey threw herself into “making my own little films with friends on an old camcorder.” When she was in Transition Year, she attended a summer filmmaking program in Dun Laoghaire, where she says she “made friends that I still collaborate with today.” She says that the program gave her a thorough insight into the collaborative process of filmmaking, telling me that “they taught me how to do proper crew work and stuff like that.” She credited that summer as the “turning point” of her filmmaking career.

Coming from a tiny village in Clare, Hensey wanted the excitement of the university experience in Dublin and saw UCD as her gateway. When we talked about college as a creative environment for filmmakers and writers, Hensey credited UCD and university in general as an outlet for broadening one’s mind to the diversity of the student body. “College opens up your mind so much in so many ways,” she said. “UCD is such a hub of so many people of different cultures and backgrounds.” Her experience in UCD had a direct influence on her writing, she told me; “I was really made aware in college about gender inequality so I wanted to make a very female-centric film.”

When watching Almost Home, there is a sense of utter disbelief at the fact that this is Hensey’s first live-action short as a director. The night shoots in UCD are both haunting and warm, and although it concerns some dark topics, it serves as a reminder of how just how much college can become someone’s home, something which effectively brings to bear the tragedy of having a space like this violated. This visual flair is to be expected; Hensey has previously dipped into animated shorts, but expresses a preference to live-action because of the community that it requires. “With the animation process, it was very much just me locked in a room by myself but I love the collaborative side of film. I love working with a team.”

Being auditor of UCD’s TV society, Hensey says that being a part of a society is prudent to allowing her some creative leeway, considering that the film course in UCD is theory only. She finds it particularly inspiring to see people’s skill-set grow as semesters go by. “To see them progress from the start of the year when they didn’t know how to work a camera, and now they are making videos on a weekly basis, it’s really great.” I was interested to know if Hensey found her theoretical studies of film to be useful in her practical work. Hensey remarked “learning different techniques really helped. For example there’s a scene in Almost Home where they’re in a dorm and there’s a three-way action going on with a mirror; that was inspired by the deep focus technique we learned in Citizen Kane.”

“”As a 21-year-old woman of colour from Clare, I’m a far cry from what would have been considered the typical filmmaker””

When I asked Hensey about her experience as a woman in such a male-dominated industry, she said that she is hopeful for the changes that are to come. “As a 21-year-old woman of colour from Clare, I’m a far cry from what would have been considered the typical filmmaker— white, suburban, older male. But the mainstream landscape of filmmaking is changing, and the impact of #MeToo and other movements are really starting to take tangible effect.” Hensey told me that the crew of the film was an equal balance of men to women, a ratio she hopes she can maintain as she broadens her professional horizons. As a biracial woman, Nell also sees the film industry starting to open up a space for people of minority groups, saying that “you see this in the types of stories that are being told; more culturally diverse communities being represented, and less and less tokenism. I think the future of film is very promising; you can be a minority of any kind and still be able to find your place on screen. I get so excited thinking about it!”

Her hope for the future is refreshing and necessary. When you look at the greatest film directors in the canon of filmmaking, around 90% of them are men. Student filmmakers like Hensey are not only here to create art, they are here to change the game. “There’s never been a better time for women filmmakers, or at least for girls to aspire to be,” she says, “and that can only be a good thing.”