Interview: Alex Fegan, director of ‘Older Than Ireland’

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Alex Fegan’s documentary Older Than Ireland tells the story of a hundred years of a life as seen through the eyes of thirty Irish centenarians. Beginning with their youth and working up to their thoughts of the afterlife, each person shares their extraordinary stories of a life that has shone for over a hundred years.

Alex explains that the idea for the film came about when he met a man who was going to a 100-year-old’s birthday party. “I just thought that was amazing. I asked him what was she like and he said she was in great form. That triggered the idea and things took off from there.”

Being born before 1916 and with the centenary coming up next year, Alex felt it would be an interesting way to get an historical perspective from the nation’s older citizens. Yet, as Alex admits, the film found its own narrative and rather than Alex looking to tell a particular story, the story began to tell itself. “That’s the great thing about documentary – you can start off in a particular direction but then you can discover a whole new thing. We realised as the journey went on that the film really isn’t about history at all or being Irish. It’s about being human. I suppose more things have happened in the last century than any other century – and while that’s in the film, it’s really irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the personal stories and these are stories of relationships. That was the big discovery. Ultimately, when you reach the pinnacle of the mountain of life you know that what matters is your spouse, your kids, your family and your friends.

“Early on we had an idea of going through the decades, so the film had various narratives, starting off with the ’10s, then the ’20s and ’30s and so on, and asked them what their thoughts were about the 1929 crash or the political situation in Ireland in the ’40s or ’50s for example. But very soon we realised they weren’t that interested in talking about such things. They just didn’t have a passion for that. What they did have a passion for was their wedding day, their first kiss, telling a story about their first pair of shoes. The stuff that probably everybody else will think about when they reach 100 – things like their school days,  first girlfriend or boyfriend, how they proposed to their wife, how their husband proposed to them, their honeymoon… these are the things that they really wanted to reflect back on. You ask what was your happiest time and that’s what they would talk about. So what we initially set out to do just didn’t transpire in the way that we thought it would. What quickly became apparent was that this was a film more about their personal journey than a sociopolitical journey.”

Ultimately, this is what makes Older Than Ireland‘ such a wonderfully warm and tender film. You never feel that the people involved are being interviewed. It’s more that they are being allowed to talk and tell their stories. “I suppose what we ultimately decided was just to hold the camera up to these people and let them do all the talking, deciding to try and stand out of things as much as conceivably possible. You’ve got to remember”, Alex continues, “these people are 100 years of age and over. They’ve got a lot more wisdom then we do – they’re really authentic and they have zero pretence whatsoever. They just say it as it is. They don’t care what I think or what anybody else thinks. They just speak their mind. So, ultimately, what we wanted to do was to capture these people who are spiritually and soulfully as authentic as you can get.”

As well as offering a rare insight into the personal lives of the individuals featured in Older Than Ireland, the film also exists as a great personal archive for the families of those involved in the film. Alex talks about how families have sent on emails saying how grateful they are. “Especially for those centenarians who have since passed. It’s such a nice thing that they have this film. As well as that, we will be providing all the footage to them – we had about two hours, at least, of an interview per person, so it’s a lovely record. Sometimes you don’t take the time to put the camera on people and just let them tell their stories. One of the reasons this film got made was because when we went to the Irish Film Board with the initial idea, which they really got behind, they said to us that no matter what happened with the film, it would exist as a great archive.”

Finally, Alex hopes that the film will encourage families to visit the cinema together. “We are trying to encourage young people to take their grandparents to the film. It could be seen as a cynical ploy to get more people into the cinema but one thing we did discover making the film was that a lot of older people find loneliness to be the biggest issue. They all want to go to the cinema. They might not want to watch The Avengers but I’m sure they would like to see this film. So we are hoping that younger people will take their grandparents or elderly neighbours to see the film.”

 

You can check olderthanireland.ie for screenings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: Older Than Ireland

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DIR: Alex Fegan • PRO: Colm Walsh • DOP: Gary Nicell • MUS: Denis Clohessy

Older than Ireland won best feature length documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2015 against some formidable opposition. Directed by Alex Fegan, Older than Ireland has a signature style which is reminiscent of Alex Fegan’s previous feature length doc The Irish Pub.

Like many of the subjects featured, the film is unhurried in pace but remains very engaging throughout. Older than Ireland is also reminiscent of the tone and structure of Ken Wardrop’s His and Hers.

The film follows a sequence of interviews with a range of Irish centenarians. Indeed, quite a number of those featured were significantly older than the 100 years old minimum age requirement.

The title derives from the fact that having been born over 100 years ago prior to the foundation of the state, all of those featured are effectively older than the state and indeed their births pre-dated the 1916 Rising.

In common with The Irish Pub, the subjects are a very diverse group who hail from all four corners of the country, urban and rural. They vary also in terms of class and outlook. But they are a universally interesting bunch.

Kathleen Snavely (113) emigrated to the US from Clare in 1921. Her story is in many ways a typical emigrants story which would resonate with contemporary emigrants. She was lonely initially. But she succeeded in eking out a much better life for herself than would have been the case had she remained.

Jack Powell (102) from Tipperary was Ireland’s longest serving Veterinary Surgeon and only retired a couple of years ago. He specialised in horses and clearly has an enduring passion for his job as a Vet. His story also included wartime service with the RAF. He clearly still has and very sharp mind and strong views on a range of subjects. Jack also has a passion for the Volkswagon Beetle and was still driving at the time the film was made.

There is inevitably a poignant tone to the film as the subjects reflect back on their lives. Many of their erstwhile friends, partners and contemporaries have gone. But many had also succeeded in re-inventing themselves in different ways. There are many unexpected light and humorous moments throughout the film.

They are the last men and women standing of a bygone era and provide a glimpse into the values and culture of the era. They reflect on their public and private lives with a level of insight which might not always have been present when those events were happening. Several have some fascinating recollections of events in the War of Independence and the Civil War.

The interviews are complemented by some wonderful photographs from a long gone era and the tone is complemented wonderfully by the music composed by Denis Clohessy.

There is a sense at times that these people are fully aware they are in the departure lounge. Sadly, many of them are no longer with us. But this is ultimately a positive life-affirming film.

Many of the subjects seemed surprised that they had endured for so long. I suspect that word of mouth may ensure Older than Ireland also endures in the cinema for longer than might be expected. It is a little gem of a movie and establishes the reputation of Alex Fegan as a director to watch.

Brian O Tiomain

PG (See IFCO for details)

91 minutes
Older Than Ireland is released 25th September 2015

Older Than Ireland – Official Website

 

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Review of Irish Film at Galway Film Fleadh: Older than Ireland

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Seán Crosson scores a century for Alex Fegan’s documentary Older than Ireland, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

 

Among the most anticipated productions premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh was Alex Fegan’s Older than Ireland, which had already sold out by Wednesday afternoon. Based around interviews with thirty Irish centenarians, Fegan’s film – produced by Gary Walsh – was one of the major successes in Galway, receiving two standing ovations and eventually the award for Best Irish Feature Documentary.

In a work reminiscent stylistically of Ken Wardrop’s His & Hers (though in other respects a superior production), Older than Ireland evokes the full range of emotions, from laughter to tears, in an ultimately inspirational film. Particularly striking is the candour and frankness of the individuals featured, both men and women, as they recount their views on life, love and Ireland. While Fegan was blessed with extraordinary subjects, the direction, cinematography, editing and accompanying soundtrack all perfectly complement the interviews included and contribute greatly to the achievement of the film. Fegan’s direction, and the cinematography of Colm Nicell, patiently captures the testimonies of those featured – there is no rush here to move on and the space provided allows for moments of genuine revelation.

The interviewees featured come from counties across the island – from Antrim to Cork, Dublin to Galway – and each has a unique perspective to share from their lives. Their memories encompass the revolutionary period, and the emergence of the state but also reflections on a very different Ireland of modest means and limited opportunities where emigration was often the only option for many. The oldest woman featured, 113-year old Kathleen Snavely (who sadly passed away shortly before the screening), spent most of her life in the United States after leaving Clare in 1921. ‘I was happy but lonely’, she poignantly recalls.

While the interior set-ups are reminiscent of Wardrop’s work, a distinctive aspect of Fegan’s film is how often he follows his subjects outside of the home space and the insights this provides into their lives. This includes scenes of subjects playing golf, gardening, driving (including in one of the film’s funniest moments on a drive-on lawn mower), and walking. It is in his rendering of these seemingly ordinary moments that Fegan manages to capture most affectingly the extraordinary individuals depicted.

Among the film’s most memorable interviewees is 103-year old Dubliner Bessie Nolan (who was present in Galway for the première), who provides very frank reflections on her life and relationships. She is also filmed walking from her home to the local shop for her groceries, including her daily box of Superkings. While hardly an example of healthy living (another interviewee talks about her dislike for vegetables), Bessie’s depiction, in common with those of other subjects throughout the film, is more concerned with affirming her dignity and the significance of her insights and perspectives. This is perhaps the most important message of Older than Ireland, particularly at a time when Irish society has successively diminished and marginalised the role of the elderly, as evident in recent scandals involving care-homes, and centenarians left on hospital trolleys for several days.

 

Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS).

 

Older than Ireland screened on Friday, 10th July  as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)

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‘The Irish Pub’ Secures Distribution Deal in The US and Canada

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Snackbox Films has announced that critically acclaimed feature documentary The Irish Pub has secured a deal for a cinematic release in the US and Canada. The film will go on general release on the 24th of October 2014. The documentary, which was directed, produced, filmed and edited by Alex Fegan will begin a minimum week long run in six cinemas before being rolled out across North America over the following weeks.

The Irish Pub is a humorous and poignant celebration of third generation pubs around Ireland and the publicans that own them, exploring how the pub acts as a key pillar in tight knit Irish communities. Director Alex Fegan commented, “It’s a huge achievement for everyone involved to take this tiny documentary to cinemas in North America. It’s also a great testament to the pub owners the length and breadth of Ireland who featured in the film and who never ceased to entertain with their wit and wisdom.”

The Irish Pub received completion funding from the Irish Film Board and will premiere on the 23rd of October 2014 in The Kendall Square Theatre, Boston for a special screening hosted by the Boston Globe Newspaper. For more information on screenings in the US visit
www.landmarktheatres.com and go to www.rainbowcinemas.ca for details of screenings in
Canada.

Distribution is now available in Ireland and UK on iTunes and DVD. A deal for a further release has been signed with Australian distribution company Antidote films which will see the film released in Australia and New Zealand later on this year.

Read an interview with director Alex Fegan here

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Irish Film Festival London: ‘The Irish Pub’ & ‘Rúbaí’

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The Irish Film Festival London has been presenting the latest and greatest of Irish Film and Animation to a London audience since 2011. This year Harrison Drury attended the festival to see how it promotes the best of Irish creative talent in the UK.

Here Harrison reports from the opening night’s screening of  Alex Fegan’s The Irish Pub with the director participating in a post-screening Q&A, plus a special screening of Louise Ní Fhiannachta’s award-winning short film Rúbaí.

 

The opening night of the Irish Film Festival London went down a treat with the UK premiere screening of Alex Fegan’s The Irish Pub for a rapturous crowd at the Tricycle Theatre.

The feature-length documentary looks at a selection of traditional Irish pubs. All at least three generations in the same family, with that family’s name painted above the doors. They have uneven stone floors and antique beams. Beer-bellied men sing in their taprooms and Irish music plays in their backrooms. Many double as convenience stores, one has even branched out into undertaking.

They are handsome and nostalgic, like old castles standing proud against the waves of what Fegan referred to as the “Starbucksisation” of modernity. They serve Fegan as microcosms of Ireland.

He talks to the daytime trade and their publicans, who are warm and tell funny stories. Their communities are brought to life in the stories they tell and given wonderful characters in the souls who have haunted their pub.

Haunted is unfortunately the word for there are troubles here also, pain and loneliness too. Though it is not explicitly referred to – the lens lingers on some drink ravaged soul sat in “his chair” at the bar – the documentary looks at drinking problems. As Fegan discussed in the Q&A session concluding the evening:

“I think there are moments where you see people that clearly, you know they’re not happy. I think they’re escaping reality, which can be a bad thing . . . but for me you can drink at home and you can buy drink a lot cheaper and that’s anti social . . . the pub is a place where people can talk and chat and in moderation I think it’s a healthy thing.”

The Irish pub seems a positive place to me. The publicans see their pubs as meeting places and their chat as a selling point. To quote one of their number: “There’s people come in to me for a drink and I get talking to them and they’ll stay for the night.” Which chimed nicely with WB Yeats’ line prefacing the film: “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.” One customer likened his barman to a priest.

The houses really are like churches, adorned as they are with relics and old treasures. A confession box door is even used as a partition in one of the booths. Over another’s fireplace hangs the image of the mother of Christ upon a wooden box with doors like a dart board. During times of great religious oppression it was taken to liturgies deep in the woods

Indeed long reams of Irish history may be read on the pub walls. Fegan films inside snug boxes where women drank in a time when it was not proper for them to stand at the bar and where marriages were arranged and important conversations had.

One can also read, in the decline of the trade – almost one pub closes every day according to the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland – the depopulation of Ireland’s rural communities. It is clear in their interviews that the publicans fear the death of the institution.

I came away feeling for the publicans. It would be a shame to see such places disappear and, given that possibility, this would make a superb document of their having ever been.

 

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 Rúbaí

The Irish Pub was accompanied by a special screening of award-winning short film Rúbaí, a poignant comedy directed by Louise Ní Fhiannachta.

Rúbaí is school child who, with the Holy Communion looming, confuses her teacher and fellow students by declaring herself an atheist. She goes on to perplex her mother, bamboozle her priest and buy a big book by Charles Darwin.

All the above worry for their troubled Rúbaí but she the audience laughing to the bittersweet end.

Rúbaí won the Best First Short Drama at The Galway Film Fleadh and Best Irish Short Film at The Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival in Kerry 2013.

 

http://irishfilmfestivallondon.com/

 

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Interview: Alex Fegan, director of ‘The Irish Pub’

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The Irish Pub takes a look at traditional Irish publicans. Eileen Leahy pulled up a barstool to have a chat with director Alex Fegan about his feature documentary

 

What were the main aims for the film?

Well we just wanted to hold a mirror to this institution and see what came out of that. The other aim was to try to tell the story about a country by using this institution that reaches out to a broad section of people. It encompasses all of the facets of Irish culture that are interesting and loved, the songs, the characters, the literature, the religion. I suppose when I started I didn’t really know what would happen, I was doing it in my own time.

 

How long were you shooting it then?

It took the good part of a year. I might have done it in a month but I was just going to a couple of pubs a week in my spare time.

 

How did you choose the pubs?

I was looking for pubs that had been in the same family for a few generations, ones where the owners were behind the bar. I only interviewed the owners and I wanted them to know the history of their pub. The other criteria was they had to have an aesthetic quality. I didn’t want to be filming pubs that could be anywhere in the world, Irish pubs have a particular look and feel and atmosphere. But what it really came down to was the people and the characters.

 

Did you find it difficult to find a lot of pubs to meet your criteria?

No actually. I found a lot more than what we filmed. I know the general perception is that these institutions are dying but there is a surprising amount of these great pubs sprinkled all over Ireland. Every little village in Ireland has a gem.

 

Who did you see as being the audience for the film?

I was just really making it for myself so I don’t know. It’s very rare that you get to see a movie where you see some people and then the next day you can go to these places and the environment will most likely be exactly the same.  I like to think it has a broad audience, anyone interested in this side of Irish culture. But it wasn’t something I thought about as I made it.

 

I was surprised that the film didn’t go too much into the changes that are happening to pubs in Ireland; it felt more nostalgic.

 

Well I suppose the idea was to hold up a mirror, and when we brought these issues up with a lot of the publicans they were like, well we’re staying where we are. So if it didn’t come out then it’s because they didn’t feel like it is the end of it. So it’s a hopeful film in a way. I also didn’t want to dwell in truisms, like these changes and things like the cigarette ban, there was no point in retracing those steps.

 

Was there nonetheless a feeling of wanting to capture this before it’s gone?

Maybe, subconsciously, there was. Definitely in the beginning a motivating factor was, ok there could be this starbucksiasation of these pubs where all there is behind it is this highly trained smile and not much soul, and I wanted to capture these pubs before they were gone. I hope that maybe a film like this could act as a wake-up call, not that I was on any kind of social crusade or anything like that.

 

With Guinness having one of the biggest pub franchises, did you think about approaching them with ideas for funding?

I did think about it but I didn’t want this to become one big ad, and also it was never about the alcohol for me. Many of the pubs I went into people were drinking tea and coffee and what they’re interested in is the chat, it was all about the people.

 

Where would you like to take it from here?

The hope would be that we find someone over in America to distribute it. We’ve actually had a lot of emails from people over in the States who love the film and I can understand that. I lived abroad for three months and even after that I was completely home sick, you just miss the accents and the sense of humour.

 
Eileen Leahy
 

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Cinema Review: The Irish Pub

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DIR/PRO/DOP/ED: Alex Fegan MUSIC: Denis Clohessy

Exuding the warmth of the well-preserved pubs it showcases, The Irish Pub is very much the cinematic equivalent of those touristy posters of Old Irish Pub fronts, offering something that is eye-catching without ever providing any real depth or insight. There is obviously a sincere desire to assert the character of the pubs and the landlords and landladies featured, but, with their accumulations of trinkets, tales of family tradition and part-of-the-furniture clients, there is instead a feeling of homogeneity. Indeed, pubs are always discussed as places of character and characters, but, with one striking exception, the people we see in the different hostelries come across as somewhat homogeneous, perhaps as a result of the filmmaker trying to overlay a sense of connection across the very broad catch-all of “The Irish Pub.”

There are no signs of some of the less picturesque things we associate with pubs, the most glaring absence being any reference to drunkenness. We’re left with the sense that this is a rather airbrushed portrait aimed more at outsiders than real patrons. Very few traces of the lived quality of pub life penetrate the haze of gentle nostalgia. A chink appears during one of the film’s occasional scenes of music being performed in a pub, when we see two young men in the background unable to suppress mocking laughter as the rest of the bar solemnly listens to a folk singer intoning “She Moved Through the Fair”. This is one of the only indications of two vital aspects of pub life: getting pissed and taking the piss.

The whole film is lifted out of sanitising mediocrity by the episodic contributions of Cavan barman Paul Gartlan, who is front and centre on the film’s poster, and resembles nothing so much as a cross between Charles Laughton and cartoon dog Droopy. Gartlan is gifted with a distinctive appearance and comedic delivery that would be well worth their own film. Fittingly, he is given the last word in The Irish Pub.

Tony McKiver

PG (See IFCO for details)

75 mins
The Irish Pub is released on 4th October 2013

The Irish Pub – Official Website

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Irish feature wins at Arizona International Film Festival

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The Irish feature film, Man Made Men, has won the Best Foreign Feature award at the Arizona International Film Festival.

Man Made Men, which screened last year at the Galway Film Fleadh, tells the story of an Irish scientist who makes men in his own image from lifeless materials. The film, which stars Ronan Wilmot (In the Name of the Father), was made with a crew of two people for the majority of the production – Alex Fegan and Helen Sheridan – with a total budget of €4,000.
The Arizona International Film Festival runs from 1–20 April 2011
For more information on Man Made Men visit www.manmademen.com or www.feganfilms.com

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