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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Short Film Focus: ‘The Stranger’ review

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Paul O Sullivan checks out Jason Woodard’s short Cork-filmed Western, The Stranger.

It’s five minutes into Jason Woodard’s short film, The Stranger, when we first meet the mysterious title character of this brief but entertaining western.  Like any character in a Western who doesn’t have a name, the stranger (played by Pat Fitz) is terse and laconic. Dressed in black, with a brimmed hat that shades his eyes, he is on a quest to avenge the deaths of his wife and son, not to mention the theft of three well looked-after horses.

Though we never witness the incidents that initiate this violent quest, in the first short act of the film we learn that three outlaws knocked a pregnant woman from a horse to make their escape after robbing a bank. This is related to us by the outlaws themselves as they settle in for the night around a campfire. The scene is reminiscent of John Ford – the campfire being the familiar catalyst for our hero to share his hopes and dream.  However, in Woodard’s incarnation we instead have three villains light-heartedly joking about their misdeeds like adolescent boys (fart jokes included).

But far from handling this ostensibly heavy material too flippantly, it is the delicate balance between drama and comedy that makes the film engaging. When the stranger finally confronts the three raggedy outlaws, his morose demeanour is all that keeps the dramatic tone in check as the outlaws clownishly try to offset it with rationalisation and friendly chit-chat. Needless to say, things don’t turn out well for them.

In line with the Westerns of the Coen brothers and Tarantino, The Stranger is more a film about Westerns than a Western in itself. With a tone that’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the film reflects on the endless cycle of revenge that infuses the genre. To borrow a line that echoes throughout the film, “It’s one of them ripple effects.”

The Stranger screens on RTÉ 2 on Monday, 28th April as part of their Shortscreen series.

 

 

 

 

 

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