Alan Gilsenan, Writer / Director of ‘Unless’ & ‘The Meeting’

 

Stephen Porzio met up with filmmaker Alan Gilsenan to chat about his two films set for Irish cinemas this year.

Imagine being a director and getting trapped by snow at home, the day your new film will premiere. This happened to Irish filmmaker Alan Gilsenan, leading him to walk from the Wicklow Mountains all the way to Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema.

“I kind of enjoyed it. It was like a strange pilgrimage”, he remarks. His story reminds me of fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog, who famously walked from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend. Gilsenan jokes: “Jesus, I’d say that’s where the likeness ends but if we could even approach old Herzog that’d be fine for me”.

Following last year’s acclaimed documentary Meetings with Ivor, Gilsenan is here at the Filmbase office to promote the first of two dramas he directed being released this year. Out on the 16th March is the Canadian-set Unless, starring Catherine Keener as an author whose daughter (Hannah Gross, Netflix’s Mindhunter) decides to drop out of college and live on the streets.

Attending the press screening of Unless was the first time I left my house after the Beast from the East. What am I presented with but a cold, drippy, snowy Ontario setting.

“I’d always pride myself as someone who doesn’t really feel the cold. But I was in Toronto and thought ‘this is just unbearable’ … I heard some of the sparks and the grips talking about how it was the coldest Winter in Toronto in 150 years the March we shot,” Gilsenan laughs.

Continuing he says: “I’d go into the catering truck just to be warm for five minutes. The other thing is I envisaged a Toronto covered in snow but when it gets to those temperatures, the snow doesn’t fall. It’s just ice. We were putting in fake snow even though it was -35 degrees.”

Adapted from a novel from Pulitzer Prize-Winner Carol Shields, writer-director Gilsenan translates the stream-of-consciousness prose of the source to the screen. While the book is about a mother’s reaction to her child wanting to live on the street, the film centres on the mystery of why the heroine’s daughter, Norah, acts in such a manner.

On adapting the novel, Gilsenan says: “[The film] is a meditation. The source was Carol Shields’ book … Sometimes I’d go back to [it] to check something and think ‘what was I thinking’. It’s the most unlikely film. The book is like Virginia Woolf. It all happens in her head.”

Many of Shields’ themes remain, the cynicism of the modern world and a desire to subvert common depictions of the ‘dysfunctional’ middle-class family. However, a key aspect of the book was excised in the transition to the big screen.

“I think partly the book is a reflection about being a woman in the world. I probably didn’t emphasise it quite as much. I’m also aware that with an extraordinary female cast and Emer Reynolds editing the film and Celiana Cárdenas as the DOP, I’m the only weak link.” He adds thoughtfully: “Probably should have been a woman who made it”.

Unless provides a realistic depiction of homelessness. I ask Gilsenan if the rise of people living on the streets in Ireland led him to choose the subject matter: “Maybe at some subliminal level … It did really bring home the reality of homelessness. The bitter cold … We were in Toronto when quite a few homeless people froze to death. We’ve started to see that in Dublin.”

I note that the scenes where Norah is living on the street felt authentic. “Some of the stuff we shot with Hannah on long lenses is on active streets. In the scene where the frat boys are hassling her – a young woman – it’s actually in the film – got very upset. That was real,” Gilsenan replies.

Gilsenan’s second film in 2018 The Meeting also feels eerily topical, focusing on the true story of a young rape victim confronting her attacker. Scheduled for a September release, the drama premiered at ADIFF last month. Before this interview, I couldn’t find who starred in the movie.

“Alva Griffith, the woman [it is based on] plays herself. It was a deliberate decision by ADIFF not to put the cast in. We felt the film will always be talked about in terms of Alva playing herself. We thought it would be nice to have a screening where that isn’t the issue.” He adds: “A lot people said to me after, ‘Who’s the actress. She’s great.’”

Clint Eastwood made a similar casting decision in his 2018 film The 15:17 to Paris. “Clint copies me in everything. I keep saying to him ‘Clint, stop’”, Gilsenan laughs.

Playing the assailant in The Meeting is Terry O’Neill, an actor who recently appeared in IFTA-winner Michael Inside. Between this and Hannah Gross recently working with David Fincher on Mindhunter, Gilsenan has a knack for discovering great talent. “Well you hope … I think Hannah’s wonderful and Terry is a real star.”

Next, Gilsenan plans a ‘strange experimental film inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses’. He is elusive when I ask if he will return to documentaries: “I quite like the documentary area, I like the drama. I like the more experimental stuff too.” A bit like Werner Herzog.

 

Unless is in Irish cinemas from 16th March 2018

The Meeting will open in Irish cinemas later this year

 

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Irish Film Review: Meetings With Ivor

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DIR:  Alan Gilsenan

Alan Gilsenan’s latest documentary feature, Meetings With Ivor, explores the dynamic and controversial career of Ivor Browne, one of Ireland’s most anti-establishment and progressive psychiatrists. Populated by a cast of some of Ireland’s most celebrated, and infamous, artists, including Tommy Tiernan, Nell McCafferty and Sebastian Barry, Meetings With Ivor is at once personal and national in its visionary scope of the Irish psychological and cultural landscape.

Meetings With Ivor is as cinematically striking and experimental as it is thematically pertinent. Deftly structured in both form and editing, the film negotiates the fraught arena of mental health and its concomitant exposure and representation in mainstream media with a real ethical honesty and transparency. The visual experimentalism of the film, which places Ivor in split screen opposition to the various patients and friends who are shown throughout, offers a visual field that is at once equalising in its representation of the doctor-patient divide (although this binary definition is strongly eluded in Ivor’s ethos), as well as emotionally distancing for the audience, who are placed in a position of active engagement and reflection. The film’s stylisation refuses to dictate the audience’s emotional responses to Ivor and his subjects; they are literally placed within a blank white frame, side-by-side, creating a continuous and fluid sense of equal interaction that denies mediation by a manipulating cinematic eye.

In a particularly veracious scene, Nell McCafferty turns the hierarchies of talk therapy on their head, and begins to critique and analyse Ivor in what becomes a humorous inversion of the traditional relationship between omniscient doctor and vulnerable patient. Ivor’s willingness to engage with this inversion, his playfulness and openness to McCafferty’s highly personal, albeit jovial assault, reveals many facets of his personal and professional character. Ivor admits at several points throughout the documentary that he was complicit first hand in a litany of psychiatric atrocities committed upon patients in Ireland, including asylum institutionalisation, electric shock therapy and lobotomy procedures. His willingness to speak about his involvement in the dark past of Ireland’s negotiation of mental illness, as well as his criticism of its present shortfalls, confirms him as a man committed first and foremost to his patients and their recovery over any professional or institutional affiliations. He mischievously recalls his experiments with LSD in California, and bringing marijuana back from the US to grow in his home in Ireland. He also admits to his personal shortcomings as a father, the breakdown of his marriage and his second partner, continually situating himself within a dialogue of openness, reflection and humbleness.

We see Ivor alone in many visually minimalist scenes in meditative contemplation, seated on a chair in the centre of an enormous and empty white-washed room. The details and contours of his face are revealed in striking close ups that show a man aged, vibrantly resilient and wholly human. He admits toward the film’s close that he has always thought that he resembles a monkey. Ivor’s boyish charm and playfulness, his humility and honesty, continually inflect and offset what is at times a deeply harrowing insight into mental illness in Irish society. The cultural, social and generational divides that Ivor’s career traverses speak of a man whose unconventional medical practices and beliefs are unconditionally grounded in the human. He has asserted that ‘the future of mental health must lie in the empowerment of the person,’ something that our culture and our health legislation continue to belie. We need more practitioners like Ivor, and we need more films like this.

Naomi Shea

81 minutes

Meetings With Ivor is released 10th February 2017

 

 

 

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‘Meetings with Ivor’ Opens @ IFI


Following three sell-out screenings as part of a collaboration with mental health arts festival First Fortnight, Meetings with Ivor will open at the Irish Film Institute from Friday, February 10th. The IFI welcome back director Alan Gilsenan and Ivor Browne for a sold-out opening night screening and Q&A.

Produced by Tomás Hardiman, Parzival Productions, and funded through the Sound and Vision Scheme of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Meetings with Ivor is a documentary on the life and work of ground-breaking psychiatrist Ivor Browne. Browne has been a central figure in Irish mental health for many decades. His pioneering and often controversial work on behalf of the many who cannot speak for themselves is well-known.

Alan Gilsenan’s new film captures the essence of this extraordinary man. In a quirky and challenging cinematic portrait we meet Browne, now in his late-eighties, who is still full of energy, good humour and compassion, and who remains a deeply-informed, startlingly innovative thinker. His unique attributes continue to find vital expression and offer real hope in an increasingly bewildering world. The film contains contributions from a host of familiar faces including Tommy Tiernan, Tom Murphy, Mary Coughlan, Sebastian Barry, and Nell McCafferty.

Tickets for the Q&A on the evening of February 10th have sold out. Tickets are now on sale for two additional screenings (without Q+As) on February 10th at 13.15 and February 11th at 18.00. Showing times and tickets for all other screenings will be available on Monday, February 6th from www.ifi.ie or by calling the IFI Box Office on 01-6793477. 

Meetings with Ivor was previously screened as The Wonder Eye. 

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Irish Paraguayan Feature Documentary ‘Eliza Lynch – Queen of Paraguay’ close to completion

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Irish Paraguayan Feature Documentary “ELIZA LYNCH – Queen of Paraguay” is close to completion with acclaimed Irish actress Maria Doyle Kennedy playing Eliza.

Produced by Stuart Switzer of Ireland’s Coco Television, the documentary captures the epic story of Irishwoman Eliza Lynch, the “Queen of Paraguay” in a story of hunger, war and wealth, of family, love, tragedy and loss.

A love story between the beautiful, imperious Eliza, Heroine of Paraguay and the President Francisco Solano Lopez, is one of the most intriguing, and yet one of the least known epic lives of modern history.

Directed by renowned Irish director and film-maker, Alan Gilsenan, this powerful documentary film ‘ELIZA LYNCH – Queen of Paraguay’ tells the story of this epic catastrophe through the eyes of Eliza Lynch. Born in Charleville, County Cork in 1833, she was the most famous woman in all of South America in the 19th century; and, as deliberately distorted by her enemies, the most infamous.

Shot in many locations in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, France, England and in Eliza’s native Ireland throughout 2012, the final scenes of ‘ELIZA LYNCH – Queen of Paraguay’, were shot in Feb 2013 with Maria Doyle Kennedy, methodically and at times eerily, embracing the dynamic character of Eliza Lynch.

Eliza is dramatically cast as both her younger self and her role in older years.  In depicting her later years she is played brilliantly by Maria Doyle Kennedy, whose acting credits include award winning roles in The General and The Tudors and most recently in the ITV Dramas Downtown Abbey and Titanic. She began her acting career in Alan Parker’s landmark film The Commitments.

As a young woman in Paraguay Eliza is played by famous Paraguayan model and Olympic athlete, Leryn Franco; who beautifully captures the spirit of a young Eliza Lynch.

Based on 18 years of original research in 10 countries by two Irishmen, the former diplomat Michael Lillis and the historian Professor Ronan Fanning (whose book The Lives of Eliza Lynch, the documentary is based upon), ‘ELIZA LYNCH – Queen of Paraguay’ reveals for the first time the human trajectory of Eliza’s own turbulent life.  Stripped of layer after layer of calumnies accumulated by her enemies over a century, the extraordinary truth now emerges.

Beautiful, sophisticated, glamorous, but above all gutsy, generous and astonishingly devoid of malice, Eliza had her faults: at times high-handed, at times selfish. ‘ELIZA LYNCH – Queen of Paraguay’ documents her unique love story, ‘a love story of the damned’; how Eliza met in Paris in 1854 the son of the President of Paraguay, Francisco Solano Lopez then, at 28, a mega-rich, intelligent diplomat-General (she was 20); how she became his uncrowned Queen of Paraguay, how, though they never married, she bore him seven children, how, though she had several opportunities to escape with her children, she stuck by him through unending disasters throughout the unspeakable horrors of the War of 1864 until his death in the last battle  in 1870 and how she continued to love him until she herself died in lonely circumstances in Paris in 1886.

“We were incredibly excited about this documentary.” says producer Stuart Switzer of Coco Television. “Mindful of the sensibility and emotive nature in its historic positioning, we invested considerable time working with the authors Michael and Ronan to ensure we created a piece that reflected the reality and intensity of this ultimately epic love story.  This documentary is our Director Alan Gilsenan’s creative vision and it is with great pride that we take this documentary to the international stage.”

“It is a hugely exciting challenge and, indeed, a privilege to make a film on the life of Eliza Lynch.” says Director Alan Gilsenan.  “When I first read Michael Lillis and Ronan Fanning’s seminal biography, I was really gripped by the epic potency of this extraordinary tale.  But I’m also slightly daunted by the responsibility –  for, while Eliza is proudly Irish by birth, she is truly Paraguayan in her heart and remains very close to the hearts of the people of that wonderful country, a country that I have come to know and love during the making of this film.

I sincerely hope that we can do full justice to the wonderfully complex and passionately courageous spirit of Eliza Lynch.”

This feature length drama documentary will run for approximately 75 mins. ‘ELIZA LYNCH– Queen of Paraguay’ will be screened at a private event in front of President Franco and invited guests in Asuncion, Paraguay on Wednesday 10 April in the Auditorium of the Central Bank of Paraguay.  Following the screening, the documentary will be immediately submitted to leading international film festival, generating awareness and recognition for the documentary, Eliza Lynch and Paraguay world-wide.  Thereafter, “ELIZA LYNCH – Queen of Paraguay”, will be released in Paraguay and then around the world.

“We look forward with great anticipation to the launch of the dramatized documentary about Madama Eliza Alicia Lynch.” say President Franco of Paraguay. “We admire all parties personal commitment to this project, which we are sure will be a source of national pride and enlightenment for the people of Paraguay and for the people of Eliza Lynch’s native country, Ireland.”

The project is supported by the Irish Film Board, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland Sound & Vision Fund, Irish Tax Incentive Section 481, RTE, Abbeyfield Group and Sudameris Bank and Hibernia Misiones of Paraguay and has had invaluable help and logistical resources of the Paraguayan Government.

“The War of the Triple Alliance is a chilling story of an attempt to extinguish a nation.” Says Conor McEnroy, Chairman of Sudameris Bank.  “Epic, brutal and with strong overtones of genocide, it conjures up images of Cromwell set on the systematic destruction of the Irish nation – ‘to Hell or to Connaught!’; and in the middle we find Eliza, a young Irish heroine, as a protagonist for her newly adopted country. Paraguay survived and this story must be told in all its naked truth.”

Eliza Lynch became the National Heroine of her adopted country, Paraguay. Eliza epitomised the heroic struggle of the Paraguayan people in the War of the Triple Alliance of 1864 to 1870 against the combined forces, the Triple Alliance, of giant Brazil, huge Argentina and smaller Uruguay. The War is without equal in modern history for its grim harvest of death, suffering and destruction. Over 90% of the men and boys aged over seven of Paraguay perished and 50% of her women and girls. Paraguay, the most advanced country in the region, was driven back to the Stone Age.

Coco Television are in discussion with a number of international studios about creating an international TV drama series based on the life of Eliza Lynch.

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An Interview with Liam Clancy and Alan Gilsenan on the making of 'The Yellow Bittern'

An undeniable phenomenon, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem hit the chic folk scene of 1960s New York with a bang that resonated worldwide. The songs that they shared with the world have since become a staple of the Irish cultural image internationally, but is this a positive or a negative thing? This is what divides people about the Clancy Brothers. To some, they are troubadours of traditional Irish folk music, but to others they represent a tiresome stereotype and a culturally damagingly cliche. After over 50 years in the business, the only surviving member of the band, Liam Clancy, has joined forces with filmmaker Alan Gilsenan to make The Yellow Bittern, a deep and dark look at the life and times of a musical icon. Charlene Lydon sat down with Liam and Alan to gain insight into the process behind making the documentary.

Having spoken with innumerable journalists that day, the pair are still full of life and eager to talk about what is clearly a very personal project for both of them. When asked about the origins of the project, Alan explains that it seems so long ago now that it’s difficult to remember but perhaps it started with an in-depth interview with Carrie Crowley on the RTÉ Radio 1 programme Snapshots. Liam recalls: ‘She saw a different side to that which the public would see in an entertainer and that’s what intrigued her.’ This new perspective inspired Alan to develop the notion of the darker side of Liam Clancy. ‘I felt I knew the music. I felt I knew it emotionally and I suppose it struck me how little we here in Ireland know about the story and how many misconceptions that there were here that aren’t shared with the rest of the world. I suppose that was the starting point. It’s nearly 5 years now, since we started. Distant history at this stage.’

The documentary contains some wonderful old footage of The Clancy Brothers, some professional, some intimately personal. We discussed the process of getting this footage together. Liam explains: ‘I had a lot of it myself in my attic in old rusty cans. I had no idea what was in them. Mostly spiders, I thought. Anna, the producer came down and was doing research. I said: “look, just take everything. I have no way of looking at this stuff.” And they found all these archival treasures. In fact, when we were looking at the film the last time I was talking about going out to the Aran Islands and they had film of the Aran Islands way back when the women made all their own clothes and they had homespun breeches and rawhide shoes and the Aran cris [a multi-coloured woven belt]. And I asked him where did he get all that footage and who shot it? And he said “you did!”’

Alan: ‘The good thing about making this over such a long period of time is that you have time to cast the net wide. As a filmmaker, there’s nothing better than finding a rusty old can covered in dust. So we uncovered a lot of footage that nobody had ever seen before. Home movies and weddings that even Liam and Kim [wife of Liam] hadn’t seen. But also other stuff that became outtakes. Trims of old 16 mm films that we’re putting back together again. What I loved was that you got part of the story that wasn’t… I mean, there have been a multitude of interviews and concerts but this was stuff that wasn’t shot for public consumption. So I often feel it’s the little moments, you get a little personal glimpse. There’s a lovely shot of Kim playing the banjo at the wedding. She’s had a few drinks, I’d say, and she’s the picture of beauty and fun and I think that’s a really intimate glimpse and every time you see that you kind of fall in love with her.’

The documentary not only delves into the Clancy Brothers’ past, but also places their rise to fame within a political and social context. The background of the political landscape in 1960s America is a huge part of the documentary. I asked Alan how important it was for the documentary to place the band within that context: ‘Liam and the lads’ story didn’t exist in isolation. Here, we sort of imagine they disappeared into some Irish-American ghetto and came back as stars. But to me, it was Liam’s interaction with that extraordinary history and how The Clancy Brothers affected that musical history and how the social history affected the music. And I think that’s fascinating. As Liam began to tell that story I thought how it all makes sense now. I understand how the music was brought from here on the early trips with Diane Hamilton. They were brought to America from Mammy Clancy and Tommy Makem’s mother and sort of drawn on and reinvigorated, reinvented by their interaction with black music and American folk music and then brought back to us. I kind of understood it. It all made sense to me. Before it didn’t. I mean, I understood it emotionally but I never quite understood where it had come from. And, you know, all that ’68, black power, Bob Dylan stuff, we kind of romanticise it.’

Liam: ‘When it’s happening it’s a very different thing. It’s unfolding in front of your eyes. It’s like the songs on that Columbia album. Hearing them after 45 years. They published a concert we did in Carnegie hall just after we did a concert for Kennedy and before he was shot. That was never on the original record. There was only 38 minutes because on an LP that was all you could fit. But now they’ve put out a double CD with all the banter in between. You see the songs we now take for granted. They’ve become old hat. It’s what’s being said between the songs and the historical context that makes it into a social document. It was while I was listening to the sings I was thinking that at the time nobody had heard these songs. New lamps for old, and fresh bread coming out in the morning before they were hackneyed in pubs and channel-dragged, before they were forced to jump like sick old lions at a circus through burning hoops night after night. That’s the feeling I got from it.’

Liam went on to discuss with me at length his thoughts on Irish music today. I asked if he felt that the songs were surviving, to which he replied: ‘It’s become technical. And even in songs. People are more interested in having a party piece. I heard one country and western singer being asked about the words of a song she sang and she said “God, I don’t know. I never listen to the words”. To me the only reason to sing a song is that you’re so excited by the words and melody coming together and what it means to you, how it resonates with you. That’s the only reason to do it. And to try and make the listener as excited as you are about it.’ I asked if he thought that our current economic slump might bring out some passion and sense of rebellion in musicians and potentially a new wave of Irish music. ‘Well it’s certainly going to bring an element of real life. I mean they’re bringing in new laws every day and it isn’t the case that every time they create a new law they strike an old one off the book. We’ve become a nanny state. And the nanny ain’t that good. Ah Jesus, it’s ridiculous. It’s so sad down the country. All the songs that we used to get, all the fun we had was all done down the side of the pub. You could shoot a cannon through it now. They’re closing at the new time.’

I asked both Alan and Liam if it is their intention in making this film to bring about a renewed interest in and appreciation of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and, indeed, Irish folk songs in general. Liam: ‘You would hope. Making a film is very much like writing a book. You do your job, it’s your baby and you put it out there. But you have no control over your baby once it’s left you. You can hope that it will do this and do that once it’s left you but if you’re realistic you’d better be prepared for disappointment.’ Alan: ‘Musically, there’s an awful lot of drivel. But there’s always renewal. And I think the wonderful thing about the songs that Liam and his brothers recorded is that they will last. They’ll be there. And I think those songs and the interpretations of the songs, I mean, there’s no better man to sing a song than the man beside you now. I think that will continue to be an influence. I think things go in circles. I know from talking to musicians about the film, about Liam, that they’re coming up – young people who are reinventing traditions. Even if you look at pure traditional musicians. Look at Caoimhín Ó’Raghallaigh who is very contemporary but absolutely drawing on the traditions and reimagining them. And other singer-songwriters – they know a class act when they see one. And I think that will carry on. There’s always cycles. The wonderful thing about folk music is that it’s endlessly changing and rekindling a tradition that’s passed on. Liam has said this before. You inhabit these songs in the moment of performance then you pass it on. Mammy Clancy, Sarah Makem, they passed them on.’

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