DIR: Alan Gilsenan • ED: Emer Reynolds • CAST: Ailbhe Griffith, Terry O’Neill, Kevin McCormack, Dr Marie Keenan, Brenda McSweeney, Allan Keating
Alan Gilsenan’s new film The Meeting opens with a sweeping title card, declaring that events depicted in the film are “Entirely” true – a daring choice of words, and an absolute to which the film is fully committed.
Ailbhe Griffith is the survivor of a horrific sexual assault. Nine years after the incident, she organises a meeting with her assailant. Authenticity is the central aim in depicting these events. Moment-to-moment accuracy is valued over dramatic tension. The result may come across as quiet and cautious, but the emotional pulse of the film beats loudly, drowning out any trepidation.
Across the first ten minutes, we are presented with Griffith’s assault in fractal passages. Extracts from her statement boldly stretch across the screen. The evening in question is presented in haunting echoes. No re-enactment of the assault is necessary, as brief glimpses of the evidence silently tell all. The barren bus stop. Discarded keys. A body lashed with bite marks.
When we are transported from the hallways of memory to the meeting room of the present, there is a tonal and stylistic shift. Abstract recollections of horror become solid and close. The wordless, silent opening is drowned out by a steady stream of dialog.
This is not good movie dialogue. Sentences are plump with polite niceties and repetitions. Focus is rested on the mundane, the undramatic. Yet there is something undeniable about it – a truth.
Griffith gives a resounding performance as herself, recounting traumatic events with the noblest of grace. She does not stand out among the actors (and non-actors) around her. Her honesty and bravery is the beating heart of the film. Empty of typical story structure, it is her experience that bolsters the film and gives it shape.
The central question at play here is one of depicting reality. Comparisons could be drawn to how Kiarostami blends documentary and fiction through the use of non-actors in his film Close-Up. Director Gilsenan infuses his film with more cinematic style and daring compositions, while the content is sometimes stagnant in its adherence to the facts. The audience is forced to soak in the dead air between moments. When Griffith leaves the room for a break at the midpoint, we stay with the assailant, Martin Swan. Watching from a birds-eye view, every shift of weight is amplified, every jerk of the hand is loud and cacophonous. Things that really have little effect on the narrative are put under the spotlight. Text is left bare, and we have only subtextual gestures to draw from.
Is it a pleasant experience? No, but a necessary one. The audience is put through an ordeal similarly therapeutic as Griffith’s. She finds closure in her attacker’s humanity, by dethroning him from a beastly symbol to a sad, defeated man. There may be a wide range in audience response. Some may find the same closure as Griffith, and see restorative justice at work. Others may be aghast at facing such misogyny head-on. They may be shaken from their preconceptions about the state of sexual assault in Ireland, and plumb new depths of empathy for the horror carried by its survivors. Whether you align with Griffith or the latter group, both lessons are an absolute necessity to learn.
Famed film critic Roger Ebert described the movies as “A machine that generates empathy.” Here, we see that tenet put forth as social activism. Gilsenan cleverly frames his film towards this end, in means which go beyond Griffith’s testimony. Just as Griffith seeks the meeting in an effort to make human what she called “the personification of misogyny”, Gilsenan takes a similarly empathetic approach towards the character of the abuser. When Griffith leaves the room, we stay with him. When she speaks to him, she stares down the lens. If the film takes any one perspective, it is of the abuser, in an attempt to interrogate – and hopefully restore – his humanity. In this, it wrestles with the concept of forgiveness, and whether those who do the unforgivable can ever truly be loved.
The film’s goals are certainly admirable, yet the presentation is not spotless. Riddling the film are a series of extreme close-ups of table-top paraphernalia. With very little action to follow, scenes buffer with shots of tea settling and light dancing through blinds. While the shots are well-composed, certain ones fall flat. The sight of biscuits left untouched and sweat crawling down Swan’s skin feel borne out of restlessness. This is unfortunate, as the close-ups of characters feel full, confident and able to stand on their own without the insistent cutaways.
The film’s final tip of the hand also feels a bit too orchestrated. With consistent adherence to a strict realism, the film’s final moments, without spoiling them, seem overly staged and out of place. The ending surely sounded good on paper, but it doesn’t quiet stick the landing.
That said, these superficial flaws are dwarfed by the aching humanity on display. The moments of release that are built up across the runtime are euphoric. When the film comes closest to finding an answer to its big, difficult questions, the result is close to pure visceral cinema. Gilsenan and Griffith have crafted a haunting parable of forgiveness and justice in their shifting forms.
Stephen Porzio met up with filmmaker Alan Gilsenan to chat about his two films set for Irish cinemas this year.
Imagine being a director and getting trapped by snow at home, the day your new film will premiere. This happened to Irish filmmaker Alan Gilsenan, leading him to walk from the Wicklow Mountains all the way to Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema.
“I kind of enjoyed it. It was like a strange pilgrimage”, he remarks. His story reminds me of fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog, who famously walked from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend. Gilsenan jokes: “Jesus, I’d say that’s where the likeness ends but if we could even approach old Herzog that’d be fine for me”.
Following last year’s acclaimed documentary Meetings with Ivor, Gilsenan is here at the Filmbase office to promote the first of two dramas he directed being released this year. Out on the 16th March is the Canadian-set Unless, starring Catherine Keener as an author whose daughter (Hannah Gross, Netflix’s Mindhunter) decides to drop out of college and live on the streets.
Attending the press screening of Unless was the first time I left my house after the Beast from the East. What am I presented with but a cold, drippy, snowy Ontario setting.
“I’d always pride myself as someone who doesn’t really feel the cold. But I was in Toronto and thought ‘this is just unbearable’ … I heard some of the sparks and the grips talking about how it was the coldest Winter in Toronto in 150 years the March we shot,” Gilsenan laughs.
Continuing he says: “I’d go into the catering truck just to be warm for five minutes. The other thing is I envisaged a Toronto covered in snow but when it gets to those temperatures, the snow doesn’t fall. It’s just ice. We were putting in fake snow even though it was -35 degrees.”
Adapted from a novel from Pulitzer Prize-Winner Carol Shields, writer-director Gilsenan translates the stream-of-consciousness prose of the source to the screen. While the book is about a mother’s reaction to her child wanting to live on the street, the film centres on the mystery of why the heroine’s daughter, Norah, acts in such a manner.
On adapting the novel, Gilsenan says: “[The film] is a meditation. The source was Carol Shields’ book … Sometimes I’d go back to [it] to check something and think ‘what was I thinking’. It’s the most unlikely film. The book is like Virginia Woolf. It all happens in her head.”
Many of Shields’ themes remain, the cynicism of the modern world and a desire to subvert common depictions of the ‘dysfunctional’ middle-class family. However, a key aspect of the book was excised in the transition to the big screen.
“I think partly the book is a reflection about being a woman in the world. I probably didn’t emphasise it quite as much. I’m also aware that with an extraordinary female cast and Emer Reynolds editing the film and Celiana Cárdenas as the DOP, I’m the only weak link.” He adds thoughtfully: “Probably should have been a woman who made it”.
Unless provides a realistic depiction of homelessness. I ask Gilsenan if the rise of people living on the streets in Ireland led him to choose the subject matter: “Maybe at some subliminal level … It did really bring home the reality of homelessness. The bitter cold … We were in Toronto when quite a few homeless people froze to death. We’ve started to see that in Dublin.”
I note that the scenes where Norah is living on the street felt authentic. “Some of the stuff we shot with Hannah on long lenses is on active streets. In the scene where the frat boys are hassling her – a young woman – it’s actually in the film – got very upset. That was real,” Gilsenan replies.
Gilsenan’s second film in 2018 The Meeting also feels eerily topical, focusing on the true story of a young rape victim confronting her attacker. Scheduled for a September release, the drama premiered at ADIFF last month. Before this interview, I couldn’t find who starred in the movie.
“Alva Griffith, the woman [it is based on] plays herself. It was a deliberate decision by ADIFF not to put the cast in. We felt the film will always be talked about in terms of Alva playing herself. We thought it would be nice to have a screening where that isn’t the issue.” He adds: “A lot people said to me after, ‘Who’s the actress. She’s great.’”
Clint Eastwood made a similar casting decision in his 2018 film The 15:17 to Paris. “Clint copies me in everything. I keep saying to him ‘Clint, stop’”, Gilsenan laughs.
Playing the assailant in The Meeting is Terry O’Neill, an actor who recently appeared in IFTA-winner Michael Inside. Between this and Hannah Gross recently working with David Fincher on Mindhunter, Gilsenan has a knack for discovering great talent. “Well you hope … I think Hannah’s wonderful and Terry is a real star.”
Next, Gilsenan plans a ‘strange experimental film inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses’. He is elusive when I ask if he will return to documentaries: “I quite like the documentary area, I like the drama. I like the more experimental stuff too.” A bit like Werner Herzog.
Unless is in Irish cinemas from 16th March 2018
The Meeting will open in Irish cinemas later this year