Interview: Aoife Kelleher, director of ‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’

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Stephen Porzio sat down with Aoife Kelleher to chat about her latest documentary, Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village, which explores the big question of faith, in the small Irish village of Knock.

Knock was declared a Marian Shrine after fifteen people in the village witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879. Knock welcomes one million pilgrims annually.

 

There’s a been a wave of anti-Catholic films in recent memory, such as Doubt, Philomena, Mea Maxima Culpa and this year’s Oscar winning Spotlight. Although your film doesn’t shy away from the sex abuse scandals, it is, for the most part, a positive representation of Catholicism – would it be fair to say that?

I think it’s a complex film and I think multiple readings are there, depending on the viewer. Rather than it being a broad examination of Catholicism, it’s more an examination of Catholicism as a narrative by examining this one particular story that’s been handed from generation to generation and how it has influenced the village of Knock. In a sense, what it is looking at is what draws people to Catholicism and the solace that people find in a place like Knock. What brings them there – even if they have, as some of our contributors would, quite a complex relationship with the church itself. So, for me, it’s an observational film and my stance would be a neutral one. It’s about giving the people of Knock a chance to tell their story. And looking at what continues to draw people to the church even after the scandals of the 1990s. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that it’s positive, more so that it is looking at what people find positive there.

 

It is very observational in the fact that there is a vast array of opinions on Catholicism within the film, for example, there is the man who works in the giftshop who uses Old Testament language of burning in hell for all eternity. While almost immediately afterwards there is a scene with the younger priest who preaches love and opposes the notion that religion is all about guilt. Was it important for you to have these opposing opinions on your subject matter?

What was important is that we show the full spectrum of opinions that exist in Knock. Obviously, someone who is vehemently opposed to the Catholic Church and someone who has absolutely no belief in the apparition whatsoever is not going to be found at Knock Shrine. There is a limit to that spectrum of what you can show. But in showing all of the different shades of Catholicism, from the progressive to what some people might regard as more archaic, we are showing that faith and religion in Ireland is complex – and that people engage with it in different ways.  It was important to show the full spectrum of opinion there and to show that there isn’t one single form of Catholicism in Ireland.

 

The film address very complex themes such as faith, the commercialisation of religion and homophobia. Yet it still retains a certain lightness, was that difficult to achieve?

I think it’s very important that every documentary has moments of lightness. Where you have human beings going through their daily life, when you have human relationships, you’re always going to have moments of lightness and humour – that is the reality of Knock. You have people who are funny; people who are warm; people who are witty and people who are joyful. Of course it was important to reflect that in the film. Yes, the film tackles a topic as complex as religion, but there can still be a lightness to that examination.

 

A lot of that lightness comes from the talking heads in the documentary, who are so interesting. You could nearly make a movie about their lives. In particular, there is Father Richard Gibbons. Could you explain how he became involved and what it was like to work with him.

Father Gibbons is the parish priest and was one of the first people we approached when the possibility of making the documentary came up. He was involved in the film from day one essentially, as far as you can never gain access to a place like Knock unless you had the consent of the parish priest. He is central to the everyday life of the shrine. I’m sure he had some trepidation about it, as anyone would participating in a documentary but he was always so incredibly generous with his time. With any documentary, with any contributor, it’s an ongoing process of relationship-building and I think he understood what it was was I wanted to achieve.

 

I was struck by how cinematic the documentary looked, particularly the skyline shots of Knock and the basilica, which really give the documentary a sense of place

We were truly lucky to have an amazing drone cameraman, David Perry, who came on board with us and shot some really beautiful footage. I have worked with David before and it was a joy to spend time watching him on the monitor. What was extraordinary with the drone footage is you get to see how unique the landscape is on the West of Ireland. Sometimes it looks almost lunar.

 

2016 has yet again been a good year for Irish documentaries with the likes of Mom and Me, Atlantic and Bobby Sands released in cinemas. What do you think are the reasons behind this creative output?

I think Irish people are excellent storytellers and what is extraordinary about the majority of the films is that they are telling Irish stories to Irish audiences. There’s a greater interest in Irish documentary among Irish audiences. Also, I think the support of funders – in our case the BAI, RTE and the Film Board – is invaluable. It’s been an extraordinary few years for Irish documentary and what is brilliant is that there is a cinema-going audience that really anticipates the stories and will go and watch them.

 

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is currently in cinemas.

 

 

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Irish Film Review: Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village

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DIR: Aoife Kelleher • WRI: Rachel Lysaght 

It’s been a very good year for Irish documentaries. 2016 has already given us Atlantic – an eye-opening account of corruption within the fishing industry, Mom & Me – a touching ode to mother-son relationships and 66 Days – a film detailing Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. Adding to this impressive list is director Aoife Kelleher’s new movie Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village. Taking its title from headline in a British newspaper, the documentary examines the reported sightings of the Virgin Mary in Knock in 1879 and the effect they still have upon the community.

It’s an impressive work in the sense that it tackles very weighty and complex issues such as faith, the commercialisation of religion, the child-sex abuse scandals, abortion and homophobia while still retaining a certain lightness. The various talking heads within the documentary (all of different opinion in regards to religion) are for the most part engaging and warm presences. On top of this, Kelleher adds a gentle humour to the film, allowing it to breathe, while never sacrificing its serious exploration of issues. As a result, Strange Occurrences is a documentary which feels light while never making light of its subject matter.

The documentary’s complete lack of archival footage is to be commended. Every scene from the spectacle that is a New York St. Patrick’s Day parade to the gorgeous aerial drone footage of Knock has been shot specifically for the film. This not only creates a sense of authenticity, but also gives Strange Occurrences a cinematic touch that not many documentaries have, making it a pleasure to watch.

Kelleher has stated that the documentary is not pro or anti-Catholicism. Instead, its goal was to portray a community completely reliant upon a religion, both morally and financially, accurately. She accomplished her task with gusto creating one of the most engrossing documentaries of the year thus far.

Stephen Porzio

68 minutes
PG (See IFCO for details)

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is released 26th August 2016

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village – Official Website 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’ in Cinema 26th August

Underground Films. 9 Strange Occurrences in a small Irish village. Knock Novena. Pic Michael McLaughlin 3436 (Large)

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is an examination of the phenomenon of the Knock shrine, the film comes from the filmmakers behind the award-winning One Million Dubliners.

In August 1879 fifteen people in the small village of Knock, Co Mayo, claimed to witness an apparition of the Virgin Mary.  After two official inquiries, the village was declared a Marian Shrine. Today, Knock’s 2,000 residents welcome over one million pilgrims annually.

Directed by Aoife Kelleher, Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village opens in Irish cinemas on August 26th.  The film’s title is derived from the international press coverage at the time.

The film develops a fascinating, vibrant portrait of the phenomenon by examining the vast patchwork of individuals and groups involved – invalids seeking miraculous cures; the sibling owners of rival religious merchandise shops; Knock local, Mildred who is determined to secure a more prominent role for the shrine’s Handmaids; the intriguing staff of the Knock Marriage Bureau, a throwback to old matchmaking days that still rings true today; and Fr Richard Gibbons, charming and ambitious Parish Priest, committed to enticing new US visitors via Knock Airport.

The film presents a balanced opportunity for believers to celebrate the phenomenon and those who facilitate its ongoing success, while for sceptics it allows a fascinating glance into the thriving world, and business, of Ireland’s Marian Shrine.

Director Aoife Kelleher commented, “It’s very important that every generation interrogate the stories that are passed down to them, and look at them afresh, and decide for themselves whether they should be embraced and preserved or discarded.  The story itself is so fantastic that you completely want to the bottom of it. You want to know what it is that they saw and how it was spoken about at the time.”

Kelleher continues “It’s a documentary about religion rather than a religious documentary. At the very heart of Knock is this story about an apparition, but in making the documentary we wanted to look at the apparition in its social context and its historical context.”

Strange Occurrences in a small Irish village is an Underground Films production in association with RTÉ and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in association with Shoot for the Moon and in association with Bord Scannán na hÉireann / The Irish Film Board.

 

The film is released in Irish cinemas on August 26th.

 

 

 

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