Alex Fegan’s documentary Older Than Ireland tells the story of a hundred years of a life as seen through the eyes of thirty Irish centenarians. Beginning with their youth and working up to their thoughts of the afterlife, each person shares their extraordinary stories of a life that has shone for over a hundred years.
Alex explains that the idea for the film came about when he met a man who was going to a 100-year-old’s birthday party. “I just thought that was amazing. I asked him what was she like and he said she was in great form. That triggered the idea and things took off from there.”
Being born before 1916 and with the centenary coming up next year, Alex felt it would be an interesting way to get an historical perspective from the nation’s older citizens. Yet, as Alex admits, the film found its own narrative and rather than Alex looking to tell a particular story, the story began to tell itself. “That’s the great thing about documentary – you can start off in a particular direction but then you can discover a whole new thing. We realised as the journey went on that the film really isn’t about history at all or being Irish. It’s about being human. I suppose more things have happened in the last century than any other century – and while that’s in the film, it’s really irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the personal stories and these are stories of relationships. That was the big discovery. Ultimately, when you reach the pinnacle of the mountain of life you know that what matters is your spouse, your kids, your family and your friends.
“Early on we had an idea of going through the decades, so the film had various narratives, starting off with the ’10s, then the ’20s and ’30s and so on, and asked them what their thoughts were about the 1929 crash or the political situation in Ireland in the ’40s or ’50s for example. But very soon we realised they weren’t that interested in talking about such things. They just didn’t have a passion for that. What they did have a passion for was their wedding day, their first kiss, telling a story about their first pair of shoes. The stuff that probably everybody else will think about when they reach 100 – things like their school days, first girlfriend or boyfriend, how they proposed to their wife, how their husband proposed to them, their honeymoon… these are the things that they really wanted to reflect back on. You ask what was your happiest time and that’s what they would talk about. So what we initially set out to do just didn’t transpire in the way that we thought it would. What quickly became apparent was that this was a film more about their personal journey than a sociopolitical journey.”
Ultimately, this is what makes Older Than Ireland‘ such a wonderfully warm and tender film. You never feel that the people involved are being interviewed. It’s more that they are being allowed to talk and tell their stories. “I suppose what we ultimately decided was just to hold the camera up to these people and let them do all the talking, deciding to try and stand out of things as much as conceivably possible. You’ve got to remember”, Alex continues, “these people are 100 years of age and over. They’ve got a lot more wisdom then we do – they’re really authentic and they have zero pretence whatsoever. They just say it as it is. They don’t care what I think or what anybody else thinks. They just speak their mind. So, ultimately, what we wanted to do was to capture these people who are spiritually and soulfully as authentic as you can get.”
As well as offering a rare insight into the personal lives of the individuals featured in Older Than Ireland, the film also exists as a great personal archive for the families of those involved in the film. Alex talks about how families have sent on emails saying how grateful they are. “Especially for those centenarians who have since passed. It’s such a nice thing that they have this film. As well as that, we will be providing all the footage to them – we had about two hours, at least, of an interview per person, so it’s a lovely record. Sometimes you don’t take the time to put the camera on people and just let them tell their stories. One of the reasons this film got made was because when we went to the Irish Film Board with the initial idea, which they really got behind, they said to us that no matter what happened with the film, it would exist as a great archive.”
Finally, Alex hopes that the film will encourage families to visit the cinema together. “We are trying to encourage young people to take their grandparents to the film. It could be seen as a cynical ploy to get more people into the cinema but one thing we did discover making the film was that a lot of older people find loneliness to be the biggest issue. They all want to go to the cinema. They might not want to watch The Avengers but I’m sure they would like to see this film. So we are hoping that younger people will take their grandparents or elderly neighbours to see the film.”
You can check olderthanireland.ie for screenings.