Annie Curran goes Further Beyond at the Cork Film Festival screening of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s documentary.
Further Beyond, the debut feature documentary from filmmaking team Desperate Optimists — Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor — is not a biopic about eighteenth century Irish-born Chilean leader Ambrosio O’Higgins. Rather, this unconventional documentary describes the process of how Molloy and Lawlor would make a biopic on O’Higgins.
Molloy and Lawlor are drawn to O’Higgins because they are fascinated by narratives of displacement. Thus, the film parallels O’Higgins’ journey with the story of Lawlor’s mother Helen, who moved from the Bronx to Ireland and back again. Actors Denise Gough and Alan Howley narrate these intricately intertwined stories of dislocation. They bring Molloy and Lawlor’s words to life with haunting elocution.
Yet this documentary is about something bigger than O’Higgins and Helen; it is about how filmmakers take a subject (real or fictional) and construct a narrative through a series of creative and logistical decisions. As such, a central question that the film asks is whether it is easier to write or film. Ultimately, the form of this documentary reminds the audience of the similarities between the processes of writing and filmmaking. Further Beyond is framed by two prologues and an epilogue, thus emphasizing that Molloy and Lawlor wrote their versions of O’Higgins and Helen onto the screen.
As a result, most of the film is spent suggesting what O’Higgins and Helen felt in the various places they travelled. The narrators generally focus on larger themes, like Irish nationalism or humiliation, since their distance from the characters (Helen passed away a few years ago) prevents them from knowing specifics. These contemplations are set to long takes of the various locations, such as the lake in County Sligo, where O’Higgins spent much of his youth, which are beautifully shot by Lawlor.
While some of these shots feature Jose Miguel Jimenez, in costume, as a stand-in for O’Higgins, most simply show a snapshot of the location now. There is something incompatible about setting their musings on the characters to these images, since their stories seem so distant to modern life. This is especially shown as Howley describes Irish families saying goodbye to loved ones at Heartbreak Pier in Cobh Harbor, which is edited against the image of the remnants of the pier. The exterior shots begin to feel very repetitive by the conclusion, but that also could be a statement on the financial limitations of making a film. It reiterates that this is not a biopic; it’s the planning of one.
Further Beyond expertly interweaves anecdotes that explore the difficulty of making a movie. The narrators discuss a variety of technical, aesthetic, and monetary decisions, like finding the right opening shot or choosing a topic that will attract financial backers. The directors deserve a lot of credit for choosing a topic — a film about making a biopic rather than a biopic — that is less bankable.
The documentary also features an assortment of literary and film allusions, from Don Quixote to On the Waterfront, but it is the many intertextual references to Molloy and Lawlor’s past work that are far more interesting. These reminiscences provide the audience with a clearer sense of their process as creators.
The finest example of this intertextuality comes during a stunning shot of Jimenez on the snowy Andes, as majestic music plays in the background. The shot abruptly cuts to Gough in the recording studio, who asks the team if that was the same music from their last film. Molloy and Lawlor confirm that it is the same music and tell her that it will only be temporary. Yet, Further Beyond does in fact use the soundtrack from their 2013 feature Mister John. The decision to reuse the music yet again accentuates that the film is about the process of storytelling, not the finished product.
Molloy and Lawlor have written and directed numerous shorts and two feature films together over the past decade. In an introduction for the screening at the Cork Film Festival, Head of Programming Don O’Mahoney noted that while the documentary was a new departure for the pair, Further Beyond still maintained the energy found in their earliest work.
Further Beyond screened on 13th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)