DIR/PRO/DOP/ ED:Cathal Kenna • MUS Gareth Ebbs, Conor Ebbs, Carol Anne McGowan, White McKenzie, Gavin Mulhall • CAST: Clare Waldron, Gerard Ward, Vera Finnegan, Tom & Evelyn O’Brien, Jimmy Hayes, Mary Lloyd
Coming Home, Cathal Kenna’s debut feature documentary, tells five different Irish emigrant stories. The stories are told by the emigrants themselves. There is no voice-over narrative. It is a style of documentary reminiscent of Alex Fegans’ work on Older than Ireland and The Irish Pub.
The five emigrants at the core of the film sometimes call on a supporting cast to help tell their stories. There are also some interesting off-screen characters present in the narrative. The film manages to encapsulate something of the essence of the Irish diaspora’s experience of emigration through these five interweaved stories.
The title does not apply in the literal sense. It is as much about looking back at the Ireland these people left behind as it is about a physical journey. In one case it is about a journey away from home and in another it involves a decision not to return.
Ireland has embraced emigration since the time of the Famine and before. It is embedded deep in our DNA. It is surprising that more emigration stories have not been told through film. A recent exception was Brooklyn, a 1950’s emigration story that seemed to strike a chord with many Irish people at home and abroad.
Cathal Kenna has given us both a historical and a contemporary take on emigration in this film which he directed, produced, shot and edited. It was clearly a labour of love. Each story spans several years from 2012, when he commenced filming, up to this year. The time span allows an emotional story arc over that time for each of the participants. The conclusions to the five stories are not predictable.
The entire project appears to have been achieved without any funding from the Film Board, the BAI or the broadcasters. It is a tribute to the determination of Kenna that he succeeded in making a feature-length documentary with such meagre resources virtually single-handed. In post-production, the director added a score with the assistance of five credited musicians/ songwriters. The music complements the stories sensitively.
I would imagine Cathal had to rely a lot on ‘the kindness of strangers’ throughout this project. The credits under the title “Special thanks to:” run to six pages on the press information.
Despite the absence of funding and the small crew (one!), Coming Home is very ambitious. The stories play out in several continents – all of which are seen on location.
The success of the film lies in the candid engaging nature of the participants and in the diversity of their stories. It was quite a feat to source people who committed to sharing their unfolding and sometimes painful personal stories with the director over a number years. The journey was usually difficult and always fraught with uncertainty.
For most of the older emigrants, there was no choice but to leave in order to secure employment. Most of those featured still regard Ireland as the homeland, albeit in a conflicted sense. All were troubled by leaving those left behind. There is a sense that those who remain may miss the emigrants, but they cannot understand the emigrant’s pain unless they experience it at first hand.
There is an enduring emotional hurt bound up with being an emigrant. At the core of that hurt is loneliness and longing. The story of Clare Waldron, a woman in her 50s returning to Ireland after 30 years is particularly poignant. It would be unfair to divulge the content of the stories in any more detail.
Brian Ó Tiomáin
PG (See IFCO for details)
Coming Home is released 18th November 2016