DIR: Conor Horgan • WRI: Conor Horgan, Philip McMahon • ED: Mick Mahon • CAST: Panti Bliss
Drag queens, echoing the essentially political role of court jesters of old, comment on society – sometimes flamboyantly and hilariously – from their place on the fringe. Pandora ‘Panti’ Bliss is Ireland’s most famous drag queen, thrown into the international limelight by the shameful behaviour of extremist conservatives and our national broadcaster, and propelled to centre stage in the campaign for Marriage Equality. There is, however, more to Rory O’Neill and Panti, his loud and proud creation – and considering the further elevation of Panti to almost mythic proportions in recent times, a documentary five years in the making couldn’t be more welcome. They say never meet your heroes, but The Queen of Ireland belies this adage, intimately introducing us to the story behind the legend.
Conor Horgan began filming his friend Rory O’Neill in 2010, following the professional life of a successful pub owner, stage artist and drag queen, while also uncovering the deeply personal life of the man behind the heels. As the cameras were rolling long before ‘Pantigate’, the film explores the many facets of Rory’s life, including his background and creative advancement, before alighting on recent defining moments. The narrative arc therefore has a much warmer touch – no doubt due to the trust Rory felt in Conor’s ability to bring his story to life – and manages to blend the personal and political seamlessly, and without contradiction. From his beginnings in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo to the Japanese club scene, return to Ireland in the 1990s, and on to his stratospheric burst onto the world stage, the camera is a constant companion – and it is a testament to director Conor Horgan and editor Mick Mahon’s capable self-control that the running time is kept to a neat 82 minutes.
Interspersing footage with an impressive line-up of talking heads, Rory’s influence and influences can be seen in his collaborations over the years. We relive Panti’s naissance on Tokyo stages as CandiPanti with Angelo Pitillo, hosting the Alternative Miss Ireland (‘Gay Christmas’) pageant in Dublin to fundraise for HIV/AIDS charities, stage productions with Philip McMahon, and Panti’s present incarnation as pub landlady of Capel Street’s flagship establishment, Pantibar. Throughout the film, we work towards the unignorably present Pantigate situation, the result of which was perhaps the exact opposite intention of the instigators. Panti’s position as “accidental and occasional gay rights activist” – as she called herself in 2014’s amazing ‘Noble Call’ on the Abbey Stage – was cemented by these events, and the video of her onstage in our national theatre became a worldwide sensation. By taking a potentially devastating situation and turning it on its head, Panti simultaneously called out the oppressiveness of a homophobic society while entreating us to become aware of it. The conversation about Marriage Equality was thus begun a full year before the referendum was due to take place.
There are, of course, colourfully ecstatic moments in Dublin Castle as the Yes vote carries through, a memento of our recent national celebration of love and hopefulness for a more inclusive society. It’s difficult not to feel emotional watching the joy unfold onscreen as Panti strolls through the crowds, and her amazing ability to move people to laughter even while our eyes fill with tears is a heartening reminder of her skill as a consummate entertainer.
Despite being gifted such an amazing narrative direction with Pantigate and the Equality vote, Conor’s film manages to be a much more touching and personal piece than these world-famous events might imply. As much as interviewees like David Norris, Niall Sweeney, Una Mullally and Tonie Walsh talk about Panti’s fame, they also speak about the erudite intelligence of Rory, who brings such humanity and thoughtfulness to his creation. Two sides of the same coin, we are introduced to a complex figure who exists on many levels, but leave the cinema feeling as though we’re a bit closer to knowing the person. A glorious testament to a national treasure, The Queen of Ireland is a documentary that needed to exist, and that it comes to our screens so perfectly formed is down to hard work, wonderful collaborators, supportive family members and the essential brilliance of Panti Bliss.
Long live the Queen!
15A (see IFCO for details)
The Queen of Ireland is released 23rd October 2015