Stephen Porzio sat down with Aoife Kelleher to chat about her latest documentary, Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village, which explores the big question of faith, in the small Irish village of Knock.
Knock was declared a Marian Shrine after fifteen people in the village witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879. Knock welcomes one million pilgrims annually.
There’s a been a wave of anti-Catholic films in recent memory, such as Doubt, Philomena, Mea Maxima Culpa and this year’s Oscar winning Spotlight. Although your film doesn’t shy away from the sex abuse scandals, it is, for the most part, a positive representation of Catholicism – would it be fair to say that?
I think it’s a complex film and I think multiple readings are there, depending on the viewer. Rather than it being a broad examination of Catholicism, it’s more an examination of Catholicism as a narrative by examining this one particular story that’s been handed from generation to generation and how it has influenced the village of Knock. In a sense, what it is looking at is what draws people to Catholicism and the solace that people find in a place like Knock. What brings them there – even if they have, as some of our contributors would, quite a complex relationship with the church itself. So, for me, it’s an observational film and my stance would be a neutral one. It’s about giving the people of Knock a chance to tell their story. And looking at what continues to draw people to the church even after the scandals of the 1990s. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that it’s positive, more so that it is looking at what people find positive there.
It is very observational in the fact that there is a vast array of opinions on Catholicism within the film, for example, there is the man who works in the giftshop who uses Old Testament language of burning in hell for all eternity. While almost immediately afterwards there is a scene with the younger priest who preaches love and opposes the notion that religion is all about guilt. Was it important for you to have these opposing opinions on your subject matter?
What was important is that we show the full spectrum of opinions that exist in Knock. Obviously, someone who is vehemently opposed to the Catholic Church and someone who has absolutely no belief in the apparition whatsoever is not going to be found at Knock Shrine. There is a limit to that spectrum of what you can show. But in showing all of the different shades of Catholicism, from the progressive to what some people might regard as more archaic, we are showing that faith and religion in Ireland is complex – and that people engage with it in different ways. It was important to show the full spectrum of opinion there and to show that there isn’t one single form of Catholicism in Ireland.
The film address very complex themes such as faith, the commercialisation of religion and homophobia. Yet it still retains a certain lightness, was that difficult to achieve?
I think it’s very important that every documentary has moments of lightness. Where you have human beings going through their daily life, when you have human relationships, you’re always going to have moments of lightness and humour – that is the reality of Knock. You have people who are funny; people who are warm; people who are witty and people who are joyful. Of course it was important to reflect that in the film. Yes, the film tackles a topic as complex as religion, but there can still be a lightness to that examination.
A lot of that lightness comes from the talking heads in the documentary, who are so interesting. You could nearly make a movie about their lives. In particular, there is Father Richard Gibbons. Could you explain how he became involved and what it was like to work with him.
Father Gibbons is the parish priest and was one of the first people we approached when the possibility of making the documentary came up. He was involved in the film from day one essentially, as far as you can never gain access to a place like Knock unless you had the consent of the parish priest. He is central to the everyday life of the shrine. I’m sure he had some trepidation about it, as anyone would participating in a documentary but he was always so incredibly generous with his time. With any documentary, with any contributor, it’s an ongoing process of relationship-building and I think he understood what it was was I wanted to achieve.
I was struck by how cinematic the documentary looked, particularly the skyline shots of Knock and the basilica, which really give the documentary a sense of place
We were truly lucky to have an amazing drone cameraman, David Perry, who came on board with us and shot some really beautiful footage. I have worked with David before and it was a joy to spend time watching him on the monitor. What was extraordinary with the drone footage is you get to see how unique the landscape is on the West of Ireland. Sometimes it looks almost lunar.
2016 has yet again been a good year for Irish documentaries with the likes of Mom and Me, Atlantic and Bobby Sands released in cinemas. What do you think are the reasons behind this creative output?
I think Irish people are excellent storytellers and what is extraordinary about the majority of the films is that they are telling Irish stories to Irish audiences. There’s a greater interest in Irish documentary among Irish audiences. Also, I think the support of funders – in our case the BAI, RTE and the Film Board – is invaluable. It’s been an extraordinary few years for Irish documentary and what is brilliant is that there is a cinema-going audience that really anticipates the stories and will go and watch them.
Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is currently in cinemas.