Film Ireland talks to award-winning artist, activist and filmmaker Lisa Fingleton ahead of a programme of her films, The Power of the Personal Story, which feature at this month’s IFI Ireland on Sunday – this programme includes a series of short unapologetically autobiographical films documenting pivotal moments in her life.
Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of your video diaries.
It is hard to believe that You Tube was only founded in 2005 and now there are millions of ‘selfies’ and autobiographical videos online. When I started to make films ten years ago that was not the case and I was simply using the camera to help me better understand my world. All of these films were made at challenging points in my life and the act of filming helped me to process these situations and move on.
I never intended to make video diaries but I have always had ethical dilemmas about filming other people, which of course may seem strange for a filmmaker. I work a lot with groups and have always believed in the principle of not asking other people to do something I wouldn’t do myself.
I was in Art College, thinking I would be a painter, when I picked up my first video camera. It just seemed obvious to start filming myself, as I was available and willing. A year after I graduated from NCAD I was asked to speak at a seminar for artists in Galway. I was preparing for my first solo show and had participated in a lot of group shows and commissions that year. The idea of my presentation was to explain my process of working and how I sustained myself. I thought, “How perfect. I will film a week in my life and inspire them all.” I honestly thought it would be fabulous, a kind of promo video. How naïve! In fairness it all started brilliantly on the Monday morning when Catherine Marshall, then Head of Collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art agreed to open my solo show. I was delighted. But somehow the week took a bit of a nosedive from there. I felt pressure about the show and was cursing myself for agreeing to film myself. What a stupid idea. There were issues with rats, a dead magpie, flying shoes, dreams about losing my hair. Because I always try to honour my word, I felt I had to try and pull something out of it and eventually extracted a 12-minute film called Delighted and Deranged which I showed to the group of artists. I was so nervous. My ego really didn’t want to show them, as I wanted to hold onto some credibility.
The response was amazing. Everyone laughed and many people cried. They felt that the film captured the sometimes rollercoaster emotions of a creative life. One woman said, “I just can’t believe you had the nerve to make this and show us. I thought I was the only person who felt like that.” I guess it was so honest that it hit a chord with people.
The second film in the programme is Happy Out. Again, this was never meant to be a film per se. I was a member of Ireland’s only lesbian choir at the time in Cork, Mná Mna. I loved it. It was so much fun and we had such craic under the brilliant direction of Evelyn Quinlan. I loved the fact that women often came in the door nervous and shy and within weeks were singing their hearts with the choir at public events.
After 2 years with the choir, my partner and I had decided to move to Kerry. I was genuinely heartbroken about leaving the choir. Around the same time I got accepted onto ESODOC (the European Social Documentary Film Programme). I had to make a social documentary film about a human rights issue. I wanted to make a film about the choir but it really shocked me that many of my European colleagues felt that being gay in Europe was no longer an issue and certainly was not worthy of a documentary. I was really frustrated as I couldn’t seem to articulate why it was so important.
We were meeting in Latvia at the time and I met a man one night who was really distressed about his experience of filming the first Gay pride in Riga. He described how thousands of protesters lined the streets that first year, hurling abuse at the few brave people who were marching. I read in the paper that things had improved greatly as there were only 700 protesters the second year.
With that information I felt I just had to articulate why my film was important. I had to pitch my film idea to a panel so I turned the video camera on myself. I kept asking myself “Why do I want to make this film? Why do I want to make this film?” Actually in retrospect it felt like an interrogation. Eventually it hit me why the choir was so important. When I cam out in 1997 I was terrified that would lose everyone I loved. I was so scared. And I realized that even though that was years before, I still wasn’t seeing happy lesbians portrayed in the media. There were still very few places where lesbians could come and be quiet not to mention sing. I talked and talked until I understood why I needed to make the film. I intercut some footage from the choir and pitched the film idea that afternoon.
I never had to explain again why I wanted to make the film. When I brought that back to the choir every woman without exception said they wanted to make a film. We ended up creating a musical called ‘The Farmers Daughter’ and I created a five-part installation called ‘Outside I’m Singing’ about the process. The IFI screening includes a powerful interview with the choir director Evelyn Quinlan.
As I said earlier my partner Rena and I had decided to move to Kerry around that time. We were trying to have a baby and decided to make her/him a video diary hoping that one day it would explain the journey of how s/he came into the world. Waiting for You is a document of that five-year emotional roller coaster. We decided to make it public as we met so many people over the years who were on similar journeys.
How would you describe the themes that run through your work?
I am really interested in the personal story. I believe that is how change happens. I believe that when another human reaches our heart then something changes.
I am also interested in sustainability and living in a more holistic way. We grow most of our own food and are currently working towards a year of eating only food grown on the island of Ireland. I am currently preparing for a solo show at Siamsa Tire Gallery in Tralee. This show will incorporate new films as well as drawings. Last week, I was awarded the Create Artist in the Community Scheme Research Bursary. This means that I will have the opportunity to work with artist/mentor Aideen Barry to develop film and art projects with local farmers.
I am really interested in the creative process itself. I work a lot with Julia Cameron’s Book The Artist’s Way. Delighted and Deranged (2008) is about my own artistic process. I am really interested in collaborating with other artists on cross-disciplinary projects. Corrected is a short film with Mojisola Adebayo and Mamela Nyamsa about the corrective rape of lesbians in South Africa. I spent a week at the Arthouse in Laois last summer with Hennessy Portrait Prize-winner Nick Miller as he painted 35 portraits in a week. That filmed called Sitting was screening at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
Obviously in the current moment your work is of particular significance – could you talk a bit about the importance of social activism and artistic practice.
The current campaign for marriage equality is encouraging people to tell their own personal story and to engage in one-to-one conversations. Film is a great way of sharing the personal story and reaching people. On social media it is heartwarming to see the proliferation of videos in support of a Yes vote. It is wonderful to see grandparents, parents, sisters, brothers, friends and allies using their voices and standing up in solidarity in advance of this referendum. In a way everyone is ‘coming out’ and that in itself is changing the country for the better.
I really feel that we need to hold a vision of the type of country we want. Do we want an open, fair society, which values all of its citizens equally? Do we want a country where people can marry whom they love and have their love and commitment recognized by the state and constitution. Just because I marry my partner doesn’t affect anyone else’s relationship. I feel very strongly that we all have to act in solidarity with others, especially in the case of minorities.
I am very aware of the power of fear to disempower people. When we are scared we lose our power. When we feel frightened or confused we need to ask ourselves: Is this true? Is this fact or is someone trying to confuse or scare me. Being brave is always liberating. A friend said to me last week that we need to focus on the light and positivity. She said, “Imagine two adjoining rooms, one totally dark and one totally bright. If I open the door the darkness disappears as it cannot overcome the light. Light will always win.” I need to believe this and that is why I keep trying to make films which I hope will bring some light to dark situations.
The personal is very much political and I don’t want to separate art and the real world. I believe it is important that artists and filmmakers channel our energies to work towards the type of country and world we want to love in. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” I believe strongly in the power of art and film to bring about change.
The intimacy of Waiting for You is very touching – and has a tremendously emotive effect on the viewer.
Waiting for You is still hard for me to watch but I know it has a huge impact on audience because it is so honest and raw. It won the Audience Award at the Dingle Film Festival last year. The audience in the converted church was mainly full of men over fifty who came to see the other Kerry films in that screening about the Dingle train and Killarney deer. We were pretty nervous about how the audience would react to our film about two lesbians trying to have a baby.
The response was so touching. People kept clapping. When the screening was over it was just like a funeral, with men queuing to shake our hands. So many had tears in their eyes and were saying ‘sorry for your troubles.’
Your work extends beyond filmmaking – can you tell us about your community work and working with young people in schools and how that filters into your own work.
I have done a lot of work as filmmaker in residence with young people in Kerry, Cork, Limerick and Kildare. Everyday I work with young people convinces me that our country is in good hands. They are brave, open and strong. I am touched by their overwhelming support for this referendum and their understanding that “of course everyone should be equal”.
They also motivate me to keep speaking out and advocating for the kind of world I want to see. I don’t want young people to feel the fear I felt when I came out. I don’t want young people leaving rural Ireland for cities because they feel they want live freely and openly. We can’t afford the loss of their wonderful energy and creativity.
Screening at the IFI is a great opportunity for an audience to see your work…
I have delivered workshops for the IFI in the past and we have worked closely together for years in my role as Filmmaker in Residence. I am very excited about this screening. It is very special as it is the first time these films are being shown together. I hope they will resonate with the audience.
The Power of the Personal Story, a programme of Lisa Fingleton’s films, screens on Sunday, 10th May 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.
The films screening are:
Delighted and Deranged (2006)
The everyday life of a struggling artist.
Happy Out (2008)
Celebrating Ireland’s only lesbian choir.
Waiting for You (2014)
Documenting Lisa and her partner’s five-year-long quest to have a baby.
Director Lisa Fingleton will participate in a post-screening Q&A.
Tickets for The Power of the Personal Story are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie