A scene from the 'Leaving Limbo' documentary film.

Standing ovation at first screening of film on Athlone teens

The first screening of a documentary about local teenagers Natasha Maimba and Minahil Sarfraz ended with a standing ovation in Athlone's IMC Cinema last Saturday afternoon.

There were a few moist eyes among Natasha and Minahil's family and friends when they rose in their seats to deliver sustained applause as the credits of the 'Leaving Limbo' film rolled.

While the documentary is captivating and beautifully-shot, it was clear that the applause was not just for the film itself but also for the journey travelled by Natasha and Minahil in the years since they arrived in Athlone as child refugees from Zimbabwe and Pakistan. 

They have emerged from the bleak world of direct provision to become confident and charismatic young women who recently began a new chapter in their lives, starting third level education in Dublin and Galway.

Maurice O’Brien and Cara Holmes co-directed the film, which will be screened on RTE television. A date has not yet been fixed for it to air, but it's expected to be shown as part of RTE's Christmas schedule, with an evening screening likely at some stage over the festive period.

The film had the early working title of 'The Teenage Ambassadors', which was a nod to its subjects' work as UNICEF Ireland Youth Ambassadors.

It provides a snapshot of Natasha and Minahil's lives over the course of their Leaving Cert year in Our Lady's Bower, while also reflecting on their childhood in the direct provision system in Lissywollen.

In one of several memorable lines in the film, Minahil said moving out of direct provision, and into a house, "felt like breathing for the first time".

Much of the documentary is based in and around Our Lady's Bower, with its principal, Noel Casey, and deputy principal, Anne Beades, featuring prominently.

There's also striking drone footage of the school, the river, the town bridge, and the Lissywollen site at various stages of a film which should not be missed when it airs on RTE over the Christmas period.

'I think it shows a beautiful message'

Natasha and Minahil hope their story will help inspire others when it is shown on RTE. The Westmeath Independent caught up with the two 18-year-olds after last Saturday's premiere screening of the film in Athlone.

"I thought the production was wonderful, but I was terrible!" said Minahil, when asked for her reaction to the film. "But I think it shows a beautiful message, that no matter what your past is, no matter what you've been through, you can always do better for yourself.

"We have learned through the years how much our story can help other people, and that’s what we were trying to do here. To tell our story, and make sure everybody knows they can do whatever they want in life."

Natasha told us she doesn't like seeing her face on camera so there was always going to be a "cringe factor" around seeing it on the big screen.

"For me it was really important to be as candid as possible, to reflect real life for other people, and not to give them an unrealistic expectation," she said.

"I really wanted the documentary to encompass both the highs and the lows, and I think that's been executed very well."

Natasha and Minahil have previously been featured in the local media, and on national radio, but this will be the first time their story is told to a national TV audience. Have they thought about the reaction it's likely to receive?

"I feel like you can’t really think about things like that," replied Minahil. "You just hope people will get the message and see the beauty of everything. Especially since it’s our first time (on TV), we don’t know what to expect.

"There’s obviously going to be some trolls, but at the end of the day we want to make sure everybody sees what we’re trying to say."

The direct provision system has been in the news recently as a result of protests about centres planned in places like Oughterard and Achill.

When asked about this, Minahil replied, "I'm speaking for both of us when I say that we just want a better system in general. Direct provision shouldn't be a thing. The best thing would be just to abolish it."

The film shows them receiving their Leaving Cert results in August, and Minahil has since taken up a course in podiatric medicine in Galway, while Natasha is studying law in Dublin.

"I'm having a great experience. I love the course I'm in," said Natasha. "It was a bit of a gamble because I never really had experience in what I'm doing now, but I'm really enjoying it.

"I love the people, I love the environment, and it's great also to have my independence and to kind of grow up as well."

Minahil was also enthusiastic about her experience of third level so far. "College is awesome - go to college, kids!" she smiled.

'This is a hot topic at the moment'

In light of recent controversies about the direct provision system in Ireland, the co-directors of 'Leaving Limbo' admit to having concerns over the possible reaction online when it airs on RTE.

Maurice O'Brien of Lifeblood Films co-directed the film with Cara Holmes, and they are conscious of the potential for online abuse.

"It's quite a hot topic. There has been a lot of negative reaction to a lot of things and that is a worry," said Cara. "I just hope that there won't be any direct targeting of (Natasha and Minahil) because the vitriol and the hate that's out there is scary and it's real."

Maurice added, "We've talked about Natasha and Minahil being brave in facing up to their past, but they’ve been very brave to sign up for this film in the first place.

"Hopefully this (film) will get people talking and will give people an insight into what it's like growing up in direct provision, and hopefully they will empathise and realise how inspirational these people are.

"There will also be trolls online, and unfortunately there will probably be quite a lot of racist and offensive comments made about them when it comes out.

"That's why they were brave to sign up to this, because they are aware of that and they've experienced in the past through their work with UNICEF."

The way in which the film captures Natasha and Minahil's powerful story could also change some minds in a positive way.

"I hope so," said Maurice. "The main hope for the film is that people would realise these aren’t just 'refugees' or 'asylum seekers', these are real people with real stories.

"A lot of them have been living in Ireland for most of their childhood, so they’re as Irish as you or me. Hopefully when people see the film they will realise that behind every number you hear, in terms of asylum seekers, is a real person with a real story."