Irish Film Review @ Cork Film Festival: Town of Strangers

 

Loretta Goff meet the locals in the County Galway town of Gort, in Treasa O’Brien’s Town of Strangers, with a diverse cast, including young Irish Travellers, English New Age hippies, Brazilian factory workers and Syrian refugees.

 

Before the screening of Treasa O’Brien’s new documentary, Town of Strangers, at the 63rd Cork Film Festival, her short The Blow-In (2016) was played. Both feature the town of Gort in County Galway, and those newer residents to the town, considered “blow-ins” or “strangers”. The Blow In is narrated by a French woman who we meet at the start of the film, cleverly framed with an uprooted tree by O’Brien. This woman’s voiceover explains that, as a result of moving around a lot during her youth, she often felt like an outsider and developed a habit of observing people through her windows. This is used as a thread throughout this short documentary as she “looks in” on the lives of several of Gort’s residents.

A narrative thread similarly runs through Town of Strangers, but this time it is the director herself, who interweaves elements of her own life with those of the individuals she interviews in the film, notably drawing together similarities between them. The premise behind this documentary was an open-call film audition O’Brien held in Gort, from which emerged several stories that she felt compelled to follow. In the Q&A following the film, the director explained that she initially had the idea of making an experimental film based off of a script she was working on located in Gort, tackling the subject of changing Ireland and what that meant to a small town. However, she was “very surprised and really moved” by the stories people shared and her experimental film turned into a documentary.

In Town of Strangers we meet individuals from around the world—Afghanistan, Brazil, England, Ireland and Syria—who have all come to call Gort home. As these individuals open up about their lives we are invited to learn about their different backgrounds and unique stories, but what stands out are the commonalities between them (and ourselves) at basic emotional levels. Answering questions about what “home” means to them, about their families and about their dreams, the participants in this documentary reveal their fears, insecurities, hopes and strengths both through what they say and what they don’t. O’Brien subtly catches the whole range of emotions in quiet moments where the camera lingers on individuals’ faces, allowing the audience to read, and connect with, them. Discussing the film, O’Brien said that she was “trying to show empathy in a cinematic way”, and she certainly does.

All of the individuals are presented as different types of “outsiders”—with immigrants, hippies and Travellers among them. However, what emerges throughout the film more than a sense of living between two cultures, though that is evident, is what O’Brien notes as “displacement from the family”. It is through O’Brien’s exploration of this, along with its associated loneliness, that she is able to connect her audience with these “strangers”. Portraying them with empathy and understanding, rather than looking away from difficult stories, reveals just how familiar these individuals really are.

Speaking after the screening, O’Brien said that she “wanted to make a film for our times”. She went on to note the rise in right-wing politics and the fear that is developed by not fully understanding large events, explaining that, with this film, she wanted to bring things back to the personal and focus on connection. Ultimately, she hopes that this documentary contributes to a “shift in your consciousness [in terms of] how you might perceive people”.

Town of Strangers visually challenges perceptions—juxtaposing shots of the Gort Show (agricultural, baking and animal events) with rappers and dancers and Brazilian shops—in order to open up our understanding of rural Ireland, and reinforces this with its interwoven narrative of deeply moving, personal stories. All in all, the documentary offers a sensitive and engaging depiction of human connection, with all its fragilities, and, in doing so, beautifully reflects on contemporary rural Ireland.

 

Town of Strangers screened on Tuesday, 13th November 2018 as part of the Cork Film Festival (9 – 18 November)

 

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Treasa O’Brien, Writer/Director of ‘Town of Strangers’ 

Writer/Director Treasa O’Brien takes us behind the story of Town of Strangers, a film about a stranger who comes to make a film in the small town of Gort in the West of Ireland, and the people she meets when she holds auditions. Together, they go on a cinematic journey to explore their waking and dreaming lives. Featuring a cast of migrant workers, hippies, Travellers, blow-ins and newly arrived refugees, we are ushered into the private worlds of people living between two cultures, sharing their desires of longing and belonging.

 

When I started making Town of Strangers, the town of Gort boasted two remarkable statistics: it was the town with the most nationalities in Ireland, relative to its small population; and it was the town ‘worst hit by austerity’. I had been visiting Gort with the idea to make a film there when the Goethe Institute, after seeing my film Eat Your Children, commissioned me to make a short film based on the theme of home.  The project Europoly matched filmmakers around Europe, and that is how I got to work with Catalan DoP Gina Ferrer.  It was a kind of blind date – she came and worked with me for a week-long shoot that became the short film called The Blow-in.  I used a day of the shooting schedule and budget for that film to shoot auditions for Town of Strangers, a film script I was developing. I did not yet know what form that film would take, but I knew it would not be a ‘straight’ documentary nor a fiction.  I was searching for a cinematic language that would transcend the binary of documentary and fiction and find a way to express the lived experiences of people with hybrid cultural identities.  I wanted to incorporate stories from the town and potentially cast first-time actors as themselves.

The auditions, however, irrevocably changed the course of the film, due to the particularity of the encounters that occurred. I was astonished and honoured by the stories divulged to me.  People showed me their strengths and vulnerabilities in a way that moved me. The more I got to know the people from the auditions, the more I adapted and improvised the film.  I soon left the script far behind and together with some of the people I met, we went on a cinematic journey to explore their waking and dreaming lives.

I asked people in the auditions to tell me ‘a dream, a lie, a memory, a story or a piece of gossip”. The resulting scenes are not re-enactments, but rather performative enactments improvised together. By inviting the participants to enact their dreams or memories, I was documenting the process of this imagining, rather than trying to create a product based on the content of the story itself.  Sometimes it is the making-of the scenes that were more interesting than the scenes themselves and these form part of the film’s story.

I was doing a PhD in Film Practice at the same time, with Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing, as my supervisor. Joshua has developed a way of working that has expanded the documentary genre that includes filming the process of making scenes with protagonists acting as themselves.  Joshua became my chief mentor and creative advisor on the process of making Town of Strangers over the three years of its making.  I made a first cut and a trailer with Julian Triandafyllou, a London filmmaker, mainly using the audition material and some extra material I had shot.  Martha O’Neill of Wildfire Films came on board as a co-producer based on that cut. We kept developing the film, even though we had no budget, and we invested our own funds and a lot of time.  Later, the Arts Council of Ireland came on board and supported the main production with a Project Award.  We also got some smaller funds from Clare County Council and Faroe Islands supported a sound designer to work on the post.  I worked on and off for over a year with editor Mirjam Strugalla, to build the narrative arc of the film, filming more material with people in between editing sessions.  Gina Ferrer came back for two more shoots and I shot a lot of the footage on my own, gaining confidence as a cinematographer as well as a director. The editing process was an intense collaboration as we tried out several different structures before we decided how the interlocking stories and characters could resonate and have the feeling of a developing narrative.

I constructed a character loosely based on myself, and performed by me, whom I call T, who appears alongside the other characters in the film. She is living in her van, and trying to find a place to live in the town.  She is seen in the van, parked up by a petrol station, sleeping, reading, making breakfast, doing yoga.  My own emplacement as director is semi-fictionalised within the film, inventing a poetic truth of my engagement with the people and place in the film, that is nevertheless based on my real lived experiences.

On another level, Town of Strangers is a human rights film about migration and identity in our times.  It is a cinematic and philosophical exploration of the lived experiences of ‘the other’, people who make their home in a small town in the west of Ireland, in the age of austerity politics, the refugee ‘crisis’, and the rise of nationalism and right-wing politics in Europe and the USA.  I spent time working in refugee camps in Greece while making this film, where I made several short films about the journeys people were making, working with them as co-makers. Town of Strangers explores the aftermath – the shifting sand between our shared human experiences of longing for home, and our search for belonging.

 

Town of Strangers screens at Cork Film Festival 2018 at 14:45 on Tuesday, 13th November 2018 at Triskel Arts Centre.

Tickets here

Town of Strangers premiered at Galway Film Fleadh in July 2018 and is nominated for Best Cinematic Documentary at Cork Film Festival. 

 

 

Town of Strangers – Official Website

Written and directed by Treasa O’Brien

Executive Producer: Joshua Oppenheimer

Producers: Martha O’Neill and Treasa O’Brien

Cinematography: Gina Ferrer & Treasa O’Brien

Editor: Mirjam Strugalla

 

Town of Strangers – Facebook Page

Director’s Website

 

 

http://filmireland.net/2018/10/18/irish-film-preview-2018-cork-film-festival/

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