“A White Horse,” tells the story of a young girl who has undergone gay conversion therapy and exhibits the traumatic impacts of former psychiatric procedures. The Irish Short Film presents viridescent colors and muted images that clash with a tale that reflects the undeserved reality many queer individuals are forced to experience.

The film is a period piece, set in Ireland during the late ’70s, with shots of old-style Irish phone booths and outdated home interiors. “A White Horse” is centered around the story of a young girl named Bridget, played by Amber Deasy, who exhibits the detrimental aftermaths of gay conversion therapy through one phone call to her frightened parents, played by Cora Fenton and Jack Healy. 

The film has received numerous accolades, such as Best Irish Short film for Foyle Film Festival as well as for the Kerry Film Festival.

Shaun O’Connor’s Short Film “A White Horse”

Written by Paul Cahill, the original script was based on a few sources of inspiration: 1) the basic knowledge of the abusive environments in psychiatric institutions, 2) the story of famous rockstar Lou Reed and his experience with electroshock therapy for being bisexual and 3) the Irish book, “The Bird’s Nest Soup,” by Hannah Greeley, which recounts the author’s dreadful details of suffering in a psychiatric institute in the Irish Midlands.

“We felt it was a story that hadn’t been told dramatically through an Irish context before,” said O’Connor.

In a lot of LGBTQ films and media, queer characters are typically faced with some form of distressing tragedy. The conversion therapy-related trauma depicted in this film is relevant to a lot of queer experience in our recent history. Although the public sphere is increasingly embracing queer culture, more than half of the 50 states in America do not have any laws prohibiting conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ minors.

Since its release, the film’s content is now more pertinent than ever, especially following the appointment of conservative politician Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme court. Figures and politicians like her have the power to erode protections and pass harmful laws that affect LGBTQ people.

“There’s this saying that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice which is this idea that we are making progress, in terms of Civil Rights, but certainly what we’ve seen globally in the last 10 years is that progress is not guaranteed,” O’Connor asserted. “It has to be monitored and we have to be aware of these regressive views, popping up, taking the form of political power, and moving things backward.”

Moreover, there is a growing availability of practical, affirmative and authentic information on sexuality that circulates in the media, which constructs a cultural consciousness on queer identity, and through this, the business of conversion therapy is depleting. In terms of taking action against it, spreading awareness is paramount and the film achieves this goal through its subject matter.

Silence as a Stylistic Technique in “A White Horse”

Considering its heavy subjects of mental health, homophobia, conversion therapy and cognitive battery, the film possesses a softened, quiet tone and atmosphere. There is no music throughout the feature, which allows the audience to detect a range of sounds from distant birds chirping to every intake of breath.

When editing the film, Shaun O’Connor felt like there was “so much verbally unsaid in the film,” which required visual and auditory space that sharpened tension for audiences. Instead of using a soundtrack, he decided to cut the element of music altogether.

“I felt like anything would just take away from the strength of the silence in it and the space in between what the characters were saying,” said O’Connor. Silence is an effectively executed stylistic choice in “A White Horse”; the film’s silent enmity feels almost suffocating for any audience member, emulating what Bridget may be feeling in the mental hospital.

Imagery in “A White Horse”

One of the most quiet and detailed yet striking scenes is when Bridget’s father inspects his daughter’s childhood bedroom. As the room is subject to the camera’s examination, there is a significant emphasis placed on her physical photographs, which may designate moments that are also connected with trauma, loss, and memory.

“I love the idea that photographs at the time were the repositories of memory. The texture and the look of them have this really distinctive feel to it,” O’Connor elucidated. “I love the look of the photographs in the 1970s and how physical photographs were a much more important part of the culture than they are now.”

The underscoring of photographs, along with other memorabilia and the room’s bright colors, is achieved through an unspoken stillness, and thus aesthetically reveals the richness and happiness of Bridget’s life prior to admission into the mental health facility.

Another pivotal image can be found in the film’s title itself.

Positioned as the film’s central point, the crucial concept of the ‘white horse’ evokes several connotations. When Bridget first mentions a white horse “following her,” one may ask themselves: “Is this white horse a supernatural entity? Is there something wrong with Bridget?” The symbol functions as the perfect vehicle to arrest the viewer’s attention while conveying this sense of longing for its meaning.

According to O’Connor, the image of a white horse was based on a reported detail from an individual who had experienced extensive electroconvulsive therapy. Paralleled with the film’s script, there was a framed picture of an animal in the room that the institutionalized patient kept glancing at when going through their treatments.

“We felt it was best to use the image of the white horse to associate with the electroconvulsive therapy or the loss of memory or this whole mental association that kind of grew with it,” said O’Connor. In summary, the white horse in the film is representative of the therapy Bridget is going through.

In some religious cultures like Christianity, a white horse can represent death. The film’s depictions of intense homophobia have some religious undertones, as there is a hung-up wooden cross in the same room as the framed painting of the white horse.

The space in which Bridget endures this therapy mentally assassinates her once-emerging identity. The white horse operates as this allegorical death of her life as a creative force and the loss of her identity. Subjugated by societal expectations of her sexuality, Bridget loses parts of herself during these procedures.

The film was originally made as a proof of concept for a four-part mini-series, which O’Connor and Cahill are developing now. However, the short picture has taken on a life of its own.

This film introduces not only the world Bridget lives in but also the complex dynamics of queer experiences and mental health in under 10 minutes, standing out as a cohesive and complete story that some 90-minute movies cannot achieve.