Tony Tracy takes a journey Further Beyond, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
Having established a reputation across a range of media, notably theatre, during the mid 1990s, ‘Desperate Optimists’ – the working title of the creative partnership between Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor – have more recently come to the fore in the world of Irish film through two highly original and intensely atmospheric features: Helen (2008) and Mister John (2013). These films, and their work in general – as they characterize it in the opening voice over of this ‘documentary’ – deal with their abiding fascination with ‘outsiders, wanders, rovers…people who have been displaced, adrift, at sea, people who are not sure where they belong, and because of that, who they are.’
Here their focus is Ambrose O’Higgins (1720 –1801), an Irishman born on his family’s estate in Ballynarry, Co. Sligo, before being dispossessed and evicted with his family and moving to Meath, then later to Cadiz and South America. After a period in Argentina and elsewhere he crossed the Andes into Chile where he eventually rose to become Governor General and later viceroy of Peru. (His illegitimate son, Bernardo O’Higgins was the chief architect of Chile’s independence). The film begins by wondering upon who this man was, and what propelled him from such origins to such heights in a land and culture so far from his own? O’Higgins’ life (or part of it anyway) becomes the starting point for the film-makers reflections about a series of inter-related themes about the construction of identity, film, history and memory.
The voice-over (more of which in a moment) wonders aloud how this long gestating bio-pic might begin. Now another narrative strand emerges, closer to the present and more personal: the story of Helen, an Irish woman born in the Bronx to Irish parents but sent back to her relatives in Ireland alone, aged just 11 months, aboard a trans-Atlantic passenger ship. Later, Helen became Joe Lawlor’s mother, although this is not entirely transparent, as he is referred to as ‘my mother’ by the male VO actor who checks with an unseen director if the audience will understand this. That slippage is not accidental; it is part of the film’s preoccupation with a range of overlapping tensions: between one’s present and past; memory and identity; place and destiny. The hermeneutics of biography are slippery, even when – especially when – its your own. In an inspired clip we see Helen recounting the story of A Playboy of the Western World, a touchstone text of making yourself up as you go along.
Funded under the Irish Arts Council and Filmbase’s adventurous and important Reel Art initiative, Further Beyond is an extended meditation on history and memory, an interrogation of words, images and ideas that might, more commonly, take place off-screen in a notebook or pre-production meeting. It begins with an extended set of questions, digressions and other Brechtian alienation devices by two voice actors who may, or may not, be surrogates for the filmmakers. Calling it a documentary (as it is listed in some descriptions) is inadequate: It is an essay film. While this hybrid form of ‘filmed philosophy’ has steadily increased in popularity in recent years (in Ireland, most notably, through the films of Pat Collins and Tadhg O’Sullivan – also recipients of Reel Art funding), Nora Alter locates the origins of ‘a new genre of film’ in German avant-gardist Hans Richter’s 1940 essay ‘Der Filmessay: Eine neue Form des Dokumentarfilms’. Parsing Richter, she writes:
Unlike the documentary film, which presents facts and information, the essay film produces complex thought that at times is not grounded in reality but can be contradictory, irrational, and fantastic. This new type of film . . . no longer binds the filmmaker to the rules and parameters of the traditional documentary practice . . . rather it gives full reign to the imagination, with all its artistic potentiality.
Certainly this is one of the ambitions and achievements of Further Beyond. Its early sections in particular are rife with theses and anti-theses: ideas, interruption, digressions, self-commentary and irony. There are references to other directors and their process: Robert Flaherty and his anxiety about making a start on editing, Stanley Kubrick’s search for the perfect image of a tree in a field with which to begin Barry Lyndon.
O’Higgins significance to Latin American history is immense but the filmmakers admit that are more interested in the less documented parts of his life – in Co. Meath and Cadiz where he ‘re-invented’ himself (as ‘the Baron of Balinarry’) before he began his epic journey across half the earth. On a more meta-textual level, the problems of making of a bio-pic are foregrounded in the voice-over including where to begin, location issues (Cadiz could never be shot anywhere but in Cadiz), who will play the young Ambrose (three Irish actors come to mind) and an interview with a man who played him in a TV mini-series. An interview with a waitress in a café in the Andes where they go looking for a location is followed by self-reflexive re-enactments (there’s not enough snow) and a soaring ‘heroic’ score which is abruptly cut. Meeting an expert historian in Santiago, they (but not the audience) hear details of Ambrosia’s complex, adventurer life. (I later look it up online and it is fascinating but largely occluded in the film). The VO reflects: ‘If we were smart we would focus on this part of Ambrosio’s story . . . and if we were smarter still we would be making a film about Bernardo . . . but we’re not very smart.’
Helen Dowling was born in New York in 1936 to Irish parents, who for reasons not entirely understood (perhaps alcoholism, mental-illness) sent her back to Ireland alone as an infant to live with her aunt Nora on a farm in Co. Kerry. The film visits the farm where she grew up (it doesn’t match memories of the narrator) and the small coastal town of Ballyheige, in the company of her surviving brother Chris. The VO ventriloquizes her thoughts while standing on its glorious beach, of a feeling ‘hard to place’, memories of the America she left behind and sometimes thoughts of ‘Roger Casement the wander, the rover, the risk-taker’, who was washed ashore here. Later she returns to the United States, to Hoboken, New Jersey. There’s a long discourse on On the Waterfront and the famous scene between Marlon Brando and Eve Marie Saint (the one where he picks up her glove) which is set in a park near her boarding house. ‘The film struck a chord with Helen, standing inside the church, thinking about the film, a feeling overcomes her.’ There are shots inside the Catholic church (where the film’s fictional Fr. Barry was priest), inside her lodgings, a picture of her on a beach with young men, information about her job in a hair salon in the Empire State building and shots over New York from its viewing deck. We learn of a marriage proposal from Ireland – should she go back? It’s like a real-life version of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.
I’ve included all this detail to communicate that the film is dense and complex, both in its construction and ideas. But while both these individuals are fascinating in their own way and while the film is full of stimulating intellectual digressions (with reference to Barthes, Bachelard, Sontag, Benjamin and others) I was not entirely convinced that bringing them together illuminates the other or the larger themes the film is reaching for. While there is an outline of each narrative ‘journey’ and while there is speculation as to their thoughts, Ambrose and Helen feel like rather strained projections than real people. (Perhaps there was a more solid basis for their thoughts than was revealed). The film ends with the suggestion to ‘make a start’ and while that is in keeping with the tentativeness of the film’s overall approach, it proves deeply frustrating from the perspective of story or even thesis. With so much called into question through form, narration or tone, the film leaves us with little to dwell on or hold onto. And yet, it would not be fair to summarily dismiss it: in its formal experimentation, its memorable characters and its thinking out loud about making cinematic history (particularly of the ‘great man’ variety), it represents an ambitious and engaging intervention about an often deeply clichéd genre. (Truffaut’s Adele H, Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes or Pat Murphy’s Anne Devlin came to mind as feminist rejections of such conventions). Still I would have liked to know more about Ambrose, who, even while he worked as a colonial administrator never seems to have left his Irishness and experience of Cromwellian dispossession entirely behind him. The Dictionary of Irish Latin American Biography tells me that one of his ‘most important achievements was the abolition in 1789 of the cruel ‘encomienda’ system, whereby landowners kept indigenous labourers in conditions close to slavery.’ I wonder if Roger Casement was aware of O’Higgins before he washed up in Ballyheige?
Further Beyond screened on Sunday, 10th July 2016 as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.