ADIFF 2017 Irish Film Review: In Loco Parentis

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Gemma Creagh goes back to school for Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane’s observational documentary that follows a year in the lives of two inspirational teachers in the only primary-age boarding school in Ireland.

Nestled in the romantic Kells landscape, Headfort School is the last remaining boarding primary-age education facility for children in Ireland. Lead by leftie headmaster and ex-pupil Dermot Dix, this 18th Century Georgian house and its grounds provide a vast rural setting for kids to both learn and play and remains a space so nostalgically wonderful it would make Enid Blyton characters seethe with jealousy over lashings of raspberry jam.

The film’s narrative is focused around the charming, eccentric teaching couple, Amanda and John Leyden and their relationship with three of their students. Warm and playful as an educator, Amanda loves the arts and has returned to teach after a hiatus brought on by health issues. While staging a play about people staging Hamlet, she dedicates her time to helping Ted, a cheeky and charismatic eleven-year-old suffering from severe dyslexia.

Meanwhile her husband, John, doles out dry, sarcastic pearls of wisdom while he manages this year’s band. The benefits of bashing out cheesy rock and Ellie Goulding covers prove to be undeniable for the kids, especially as an outlet for the shy, academic Eliza, and allows newcomer Florence a chance to finally settle in at Headfort. It’s clear from Amanda and John’s interactions with these students that teaching is the true focus of this couple’s life (well, teaching and some very pampered dogs). As John says himself, “If we don’t come here what would we do all day? Just sitting around getting more and more decrepit.”

From shooting in the dormitories at night to recording in the homes of teachers, filmmaker Neasa Ní Chianáin and her partner and co-director, David Rane, have really managed to get an all-access pass to the school. So much so, that even their own daughter, who attended Headfort as a day pupil during the two years it took them to film In Loco Parentis, features in a few of the band scenes.

While this closeness with the subjects elicits intimacy and openness in every scene, one can’t help but think that there must be some less palatable stories that hit the edit suite floor. Life in an insanely expensive boarding school filled with upper-middleclass children, ponies, loving teachers, and fiscal resources couldn’t have been all that perfect. Right? Real life isn’t all fabulous forts and rope swings. #Jealousy #RaspberryJam

If this film left you wanting more of the gorgeous Headfort landscape and heartfelt drama, then don’t worry – the In Loco Parentis team are currently in negotiations with RTÉ about extending the film into a series.

 

In Loco Parentis screened on Monday, 20th February and Thursday, 23rd February 2017 at the Light House Cinema as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

 

 

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IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Neasa Ní Chianáin, director of ‘The Stranger ’

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Neasa Ní Chianáin’s talks to Film Ireland about The Stranger, her documentary about Neal MacGregor, an English artist who lived in solitude on Inishbofin and died alone, aged 44.

The Stranger screens on Sunday, 18th February 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of its Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

 

Neal MacGregor was an English artist who died alone in 1990, aged 44, in a stone hut built for hens on the remote island of Inishbofin, off the coast of Donegal, where he lived without water and electricity. The Gaelic-speaking islanders on the rapidly depopulating island knew little of Neal during the 8 years he lived there.

Neasa Ní Chianáin’s documentary The Stranger uses interviews with those who knew or knew of him, reconstructions, poetic diary extracts and archive material to piece together the fascinating story of this mysterious recluse and ponders the question Neasa herself poses at the start of the film: “Why do some people choose to retreat – to withdraw from the world; from people; from life? Why would someone choose to live in solitude and isolation?”

Memories of Neal vary from his life in England in the ’60s as a handsome popular teacher come jewellery artist in London, Acid-victim drop out and husband, to the life of loneliness he chose to pursue on a remote Irish island, which raised various questions from the inhabitants – was he a British spy recording IRA gun-running routes? Was he trying to take control of the island? Was he crazy? Or was he just seeking solitude? The different versions of who he was is something that attracted Neasa to making the film.

“I was interested in the notion of what is left of us when we die,” Neasa explains, “the idea that the dead become a collection of memories held by those still living, fragments of a life interpreted by others, memories fused with truth and sometimes myth. Neal was interesting in that he inspired so many conflicting stories about who he was, the Neal in London was a very different person to the Neal who arrived on Inishbofin. I was interested in how the jigsaw of his life varied depending on the storyteller and of course how memory evolves and changes overtime.”

The film plays on our interest in isolation and the life of a mysterious recluse, which feeds into a certain romantic narrative that film is exploring more and more. What is this particular fascination with solitude? “I think as life speeds up it gets very complicated for people,” says Neasa. “Everybody is busy being busy, one distraction after another, no time to reflect. Neal was a thinker and communicated only when he had something to say, one of his friends describe him as being very silent (in Donegal) but his silence was very noisy. I think he was trying to make sense of it all. He was searching for some meaning, he had to reduce his life, turn down the noise, so that he could focus, meditate, whatever way you want to describe it. I think there’s a little part of that in all of us, a yearning for solitude, a yearning to find some meaning. Maybe that’s why people want to hear the stories of those who were not afraid if it, because we think they might have found some answers. I have conflicting feelings about solitude, I sometimes yearn for it, but at the same time I fear it…like silence, I know it’s good for me, but it’s difficult to surrender to it. The film is a celebration of someone who had no fear of being alone.”

 

The Stranger screens on Sunday, 15th February 2015 at 13.00 at the IFI as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Neasa Ní Chianáin will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Tickets for The Stranger are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

The film is presented in association with Guth Gafa Documentary Film Festival, who are working with Soilsiu Films on a festival outreach strategy for The Stranger, following its two successful screenings at Guth Gafa in Donegal and Meath.

The Stranger will also screen at The Glen Centre, Manorhamilton on Friday, 20th February at 8.30pm; at the Phoenix Cinema, Dingle, Sunday, 15th March at 12 noon (as part of the Dingle Film Festival); at Century Cinema, Letterkenny on Thursday, 19th March at 8.30pm; and at Glór, Ennis on Thursday, 26th March at 8pm. 

All screenings are part of the Guth Gafa and Soilsiú Films’ collaboration, and are made possible with direct distribution support from The Irish Film Board.

Further dates to be announced shortly.

Check www.thestrangerdocumentary.com for details.

 

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The Stranger – Review of Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh

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Stephen Totterdell checks in on Neasa Ní Chianáin’s documentary about Neal MacGregor, an English artist who died alone aged 44 in a cave on the remote island of Inishbofin. The Stranger screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

Camus’ Mersault is the obvious association. Whenever a character like this appears; a character who chooses to live outside society – no, rather a character who refuses to engage in the “busying oneself” that makes up much of modern life – we think of Mersault. A character who refuses to lie, to engage in social practices for the sake of it. The young Neal MacGregor first strikes us with his good looks and charm. The narrative dissonance of his life – that a talented London charmer should end up a recluse on an island off the west of Ireland – is irresistable. It’s like a story out of a Roberto Bolaño novel.

Sometimes, perhaps, a little too irresistable. Whilst the interviews with Neal’s friends provide insight into his youth, there are repeated references to “What happened”, as if his move to the island was the result of personal difficulties that suddenly came upon him. Some suspect a bad acid trip. This kind of conjecture runs through the coding of an otherwise fine and intriguing film. Sometimes the narrative is a little too eager, or engages with the tortured artist complex a little too much. It wants there to be a mystical secret to Neal’s life.

For example: when the interviewees describe Neal wandering to the back of the island, they suggest that this was “Out of bounds” for the island’s residents, and that Neal disregarded this mystic barrier in order to explore “the back of the island” (read: his tortured soul).

Nevertheless, it is one of the more interesting documentaries of late, and its trawl through West Ireland culture certainly provides plenty of interest. Given that Neal’s identity is constructed through hearsay and half-forgotten memories (he died in 1990), that he should be remembered as a larger-than-life figure makes sense. The Cult of Neal. That the documentary takes as its subject an interesting non-celebrity reveals shades of Karl Ove Knausgaard and the new trend for authenticity. Much of what Neal did on the island was fascinating only because of its context. The obsession with minutiae and of building his identity through language is one of the great appealing traits of the modern age. It also has ties with Roberto Bolaño, whose novel The Savage Detectives consists of memories and fragments of characters who never appear directly before the reader.

It would be interesting to hear if, from all of the recorded interviews, Neal emerged significantly differently in the accounts of the Irish speakers versus the English speakers of the film. If language is how we perceive reality, and our identities consist of the ways in which we utilise language, and if Neal lived as an Englishman on an island where Irish was spoken, then perhaps his identity is caught between two languages, in the shades in between.

What makes a man desert society to live on an island? The interviewees speak as if there are reasons. Some people do things differently. “Neal enjoyed being alone,” says one interviewee, “That’s sad.” Why is it sad? It’s different. This is the Mersault problem.

Click here for our coverage of Irish Film at the 26th Galway Film Fleadh  (8 – 13 July, 2014)

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The Stranger: Preview of Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh

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The 26th Galway Film Fleadh (8 – 13 July, 2014)

The Stranger

Thu 10th July

Town Hall Theatre

17.00

Neal MacGregor was an English artist who died alone aged 44 in a cave on the remote island of Inishbofin. A new documentary by Neasa Ní Chianáin uses reconstructions, animation and archive material to reconstruct the story of this mysterious hermit, and will screen at the 26th annual Galway Film Fleadh.

Neasa told Film Ireland, “We are delighted to be screening the world premiere of the film in Galway in July. The Fleadh was the first festival I ever attended as a punter many moons ago, and has since remained one of my favorite festivals to attend.”

When we are gone, what do people remember of us? Neal MacGregor, an English artist, died alone, prematurely, aged forty-four, in a stone hen-house that he couldn’t stand up in, where he lived without water, electricity or heating on a remote island. The Irish-speaking islanders on the rapidly depopulating island knew little of Neal during the eight years he lived there. Who was this stranger? Was he a British spy recording IRA gun-running routes, as some islanders thought? Was he trying to take control of the island? Was he crazy, as others thought? Or was he just seeking solitude? Neal left behind volumes of beautifully illustrated notebooks and secret diaries, and this beautiful enigmatic film pulls together the jigsaw of missing pieces and sensitively paints a portrait of a man living on the edge, physically and mentally, and the insular island community he lived amongst.

Tickets are available to book from the Town Hall Theatre on 091 569777, or at www.tht.ie.

Director Neasa Ní Chianáin will attend.

Director: Neasa Ní Chianáin

Cast: Edward Humm, Kloe Humm

Script: Neasa Ní Chianáin, Maria Gasol

Producer: David Rane

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Fairytale of Kathmandu

Fairytale of Kathmandu
Fairytale of Kathmandu

It is not unusual for a documentary filmmaker to be the protagonist of their own film. Sometimes it is planned that way and the director actually talks to the camera-audience from the beginning, establishing plainly that this film is their point of view. Other times, the events of the film take a subject and turn it into a story, while yet others impose an editorial or even moral choice on the director, a choice that will change what the film is really about. Fairytale of Kathmandu is of this sadly serendipitous category. It is sad because neither the original protagonist (at least consciously) nor the filmmaker or even the audience would have preferred things turn out the way they did even though it did result a stronger and more compelling film than was originally intended.

Neasa Ní Chianán goes on a trip to Nepal with friend Cathal Ó Searcaigh. In ways she’s really still his student, as well as being a lover of his poetry and an admirer of his courage to be openly gay in an environment so traditional. He breathes beauty and life into a cause she holds dear, her mother tongue, an Gaeilge.

She set out to make a film that wholesomely sought to juxtapose the windswept beauty of Donegal with the mountainous splendor of Nepal, that sought to marvel at the notion of etching Irish poetry on the fluttering prayer flags of another culture, that sought to follow a hero to a source of his stories and inspiration, that went to see and show a people and the young men of whom she had so often heard… and also maybe to prove that tradition and modernity were indeed synergistic bedfellows, sources of progress.

All of this does happen in the film Fairytale of Kathmandu. In fact, it takes up most of the time and space the film disposes of. But Ní Chianán’s lens lingers longer than might always seem necessary. It lingers on the sadness beneath the poetics. It lingers on the poet’s lingering gaze. It lingers long enough to capture the hesitations, bewilderment and disapproval that rest just behind the circumstantial gazes of Nepalese caught in the camera’s net of memory, caught in the poet’s denial of what is really happening. It lingers long enough to tell us more than is said. Sometimes we want to look away. In fact if it were us, we might have pretended it wasn’t happening, or that it wasn’t such a big deal.

This film is not a fairytale in the Hollywood sense, with a happy-ever-after ending; it is more in the older European Grimm tradition, where the purpose of these fantastic narratives was also to evoke unfathomable fears and the darker sides of human nature, and where characters sometimes reveal themselves to be more complex than we first thought, including the narrator.

It’s a film where to relate the sequence of events is not enough, for it is constructed simply in such a way that the audience is obliged to share the filmmaker’s dilemma, her disappointment.

Seamas McSwiney

Fairytale of Kathmandu – Official website

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