Stephen Totterdall reviews One Million Dubliners, Aoife Kelleher’s documentary about Glasnevin Cemetery, the final resting place of 1.5 million souls. One Million Dubliners screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
For a society that thinks so much about death, we say remarkably little about it. For every mystical platitude we spout, we subtract from our knowledge of death’s mundanities and practicalities. These details become the spine of One Million Dubliners, and offer us a far more profound analysis than any poet-philosopher’s approach could.
The film focuses on the inner workings of Glasnevin Cemetery. Its managerial process, methods of attaining revenue, grave planning, cremation clean-up. Then we watch how the cemetery’s narrative is produced. The guided tour, combined with an approach to publicity that takes into account the Michael Collins film amongst other things. There really is nothing romantic about it when you get close up. Yet at the same time it is these mundanities that produce something beautiful.
Like the opening pages of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, it is the mundane details that make up a death; and the life lived before it. The success of Knausgaard as a novelist comes largely from his insistence that he, a middle-class father living in a regional town, lives a life worth documenting. He doesn’t need to be a hero like Michael Collins. Simply by living his unsatisfying life, he is a part of the human experience; arguably moreso than those who, like Collins, have become mythologised.
While One Million Dubliners appears to initiate this approach to life, it is actually an early adopter of a wider society-wide shift in the way we perceive the world. New Sincerity and Authenticity rule. David Foster Wallace got there even earlier with his tale of bureaucratic meaning in The Pale King. Long seen as the mark of an unlived life, these small details in life; the new thinking argues; are the places where we live. Although many visitors come for the grave of Michael Collins, these visits provide revenue so that the cemetery can house its other 1.5 million residents.
When we first hear that the cemetery is designed to maximise the number of graves, we react with revulsion. It makes sense, obviously. But we tend to think of death in such mystical terms that to be confronted with such an ugly and capitalistic fact brings us a little too close. As the film goes on, we come to appreciate this closeness. It takes the pressure off. By confronting the physical reality rather than fobbing it off with platitudes, we come to see the connectedness of everyone. 1.5 million Dubliners, connected to each other through muck. “We’re just caretakers,” say the cemetery’s staff, “One day [We’ll] end up in Glasnevin Cemetery, too.”
Rarely has a film outperformed expectations to this degree. Its description is hardly enticing. But, like the small details of the cemetery, it catches you off guard and provides you with all you need in a film.