Seán Crosson scores a century for Alex Fegan’s documentary Older than Ireland, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
Among the most anticipated productions premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh was Alex Fegan’s Older than Ireland, which had already sold out by Wednesday afternoon. Based around interviews with thirty Irish centenarians, Fegan’s film – produced by Gary Walsh – was one of the major successes in Galway, receiving two standing ovations and eventually the award for Best Irish Feature Documentary.
In a work reminiscent stylistically of Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers (though in other respects a superior production), Older than Ireland evokes the full range of emotions, from laughter to tears, in an ultimately inspirational film. Particularly striking is the candour and frankness of the individuals featured, both men and women, as they recount their views on life, love and Ireland. While Fegan was blessed with extraordinary subjects, the direction, cinematography, editing and accompanying soundtrack all perfectly complement the interviews included and contribute greatly to the achievement of the film. Fegan’s direction, and the cinematography of Colm Nicell, patiently captures the testimonies of those featured – there is no rush here to move on and the space provided allows for moments of genuine revelation.
The interviewees featured come from counties across the island – from Antrim to Cork, Dublin to Galway – and each has a unique perspective to share from their lives. Their memories encompass the revolutionary period, and the emergence of the state but also reflections on a very different Ireland of modest means and limited opportunities where emigration was often the only option for many. The oldest woman featured, 113-year old Kathleen Snavely (who sadly passed away shortly before the screening), spent most of her life in the United States after leaving Clare in 1921. ‘I was happy but lonely’, she poignantly recalls.
While the interior set-ups are reminiscent of Wardrop’s work, a distinctive aspect of Fegan’s film is how often he follows his subjects outside of the home space and the insights this provides into their lives. This includes scenes of subjects playing golf, gardening, driving (including in one of the film’s funniest moments on a drive-on lawn mower), and walking. It is in his rendering of these seemingly ordinary moments that Fegan manages to capture most affectingly the extraordinary individuals depicted.
Among the film’s most memorable interviewees is 103-year old Dubliner Bessie Nolan (who was present in Galway for the première), who provides very frank reflections on her life and relationships. She is also filmed walking from her home to the local shop for her groceries, including her daily box of Superkings. While hardly an example of healthy living (another interviewee talks about her dislike for vegetables), Bessie’s depiction, in common with those of other subjects throughout the film, is more concerned with affirming her dignity and the significance of her insights and perspectives. This is perhaps the most important message of Older than Ireland, particularly at a time when Irish society has successively diminished and marginalised the role of the elderly, as evident in recent scandals involving care-homes, and centenarians left on hospital trolleys for several days.
Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).
Older than Ireland screened on Friday, 10th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)