When Whackala began a crowd-funding campaign in 2011 to raise money to make City Wild the company set out to produce a short film. Since then City Wild has evolved to become a feature documentary. Steven Galvin caught up with Leticia Agudo, who co-directed the film with Paul McGrath, to find out more about Whackala’s first feature-length documentary, which shines a light on the people who live and work in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
The film screens this weekend as part of Ireland on Sunday, the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.
Most people who have spent time in the Phoenix Park have at one time or another wondered in true Through The Keyhole-style ‘who could live in a house like this’. Leticia Agudo and Paul McGrath asked themselves the same question and decided to make a documentary that would provide some answers. As Leticia tells me, ‘Both Paul and I love the Phoenix Park, and, being nosy filmmakers – let’s call it curious, it’s more professional – we each, at separate times, saw people coming out or going into a couple of the lodges, and then we got really curious about who they were and what life inside the park was like. Before that, Paul thought the lodges were empty and used for storage, so it was a great surprise. I personally love documentary because you can get right into a world and close to people you normally wouldn’t, and this was one of those instances where we both really wanted to find out more. From the start, we liked the angle of it being “a bit of the country in the middle of the city”, as some of the characters refer to it.”
The park is home to 40 families or households, mostly park staff, past and present, whose lives and stories are intertwined with those of the park. For the documentary, Leticia and John looked for people who, aside from having interesting stories, contrasted each other in their experiences and personalities. The people involved are the essence of the documentary and their findings inform the film enormously, in content and style, providing a rich insight into the Park’s history. One of them was Brendan Costello, a retired ranger from Strabane, who, according to Leticia, “aside from being incredibly open and generous with his stories and knowledge from the start, had reels of Super 8 footage of his family and events in the park, mostly during the ‘70s. We loved it and wanted as much as we could use in the film; it showed the private and public nature of their lives in the park, which was interesting, they had been part of some of the biggest historical events in the country.”
Brendan also helped in getting others on board. “There was one person who was very reticent from the start even though he was one of the first people we met, but we kept at him, because we were won over by his life story and his humbleness; in his case, and also in the case of others, Brendan, whom we got very close to, interceded in our favour; he trusted us from the start and saw the good in what we were doing and was the best ambassador of the project amongst other residents. Paul and I normally end up being quite close to some of the people we film; we made three good new friends from the park who we see regularly.”
As a result the film balances the personal stories of the residents, the day-to-day running of the park, as well as its history. Something that Leticia admits was difficult to achieve. “It was a very lengthy edit. I got carried away with the personal stories in the first cut and Paul looked at it and said: “where’s the park?” Finding the narrative took going back and forth between structures on paper and the edit. I came up with the opening very early on and we both liked it; except, we eventually added images of the park waking up too, as Paul thought the park itself had to be another character in the film throughout, so he kept tabs on me, since I would quite happily have made the whole film about the people and their stories. Our loose large structure was: the past, the present and the future of the park, represented by the characters that dominated each section: retired staff first, then the active staff and, finally, Terry, the deer keeper and aspiring park resident, representing the future and hopes for the park.”
Leticia herself took on the difficult job of editing down the 60 to 70 hours of their own footage. “Both Paul and I like constructing documentaries that use no voiceover or guiding texts, although that makes the edit a lot harder; we have to find all the content from what the contributors say and make it make sense with what images and music it’s juxtaposed against, since I also prefer contrasting, rather than illustrating a point. It’s a challenge, but when a sequence, or even a moment, works, it’s a real pleasure.”
The film is set to screen at the IFI and as Leticia insists her 3 plans for the film are:“Get it seen, get it seen, get it seen! I’m still applying to a couple of international festivals, but it’s not really a festival film; we’ve gotten great feedback from a previewing audience of over 50 year olds, some of the initial funders of the film, who really engage with it and its characters, and we’re really happy targeting the documentary at them. We entered into a contract for broadcast with RTÉ in 2012 but they want a younger, lighter and more current approach, so I’m also editing that version at the moment, which is, essentially, a different film. It took us a long time to detach ourselves from the slow reflective film that it turned into, and that we’re quite happy with.”
City Wild screens on Sunday, 19th January 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.
Directors Leticia Agudo and Paul McGrath will participate in a post-screening Q&A.
Tickets for City Wild are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie