Director James Creedon talks about his film Thanks to Your Noble Shadow, the story of one of Ireland’s last missionary nuns, which premieres at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
What can you tell us about the film?
The film is a biographical and intimate portrayal of a woman who has just turned 100 and is reflecting back on a her epic life journey. Born in 1912, she grew up during the Irish Civi War in Cloughduv, West Cork. Her childhood was marked by this – she even heard the shots that killed Michael Collins with her own ears, just over the hills in Béal na Bláth. Educated by the Drishane Nuns (Infant Jesus Sisters) in Millstreet, her father subsequently pulled her out of the school out of fear she would join the order.
Jennie O’Sullivan – or Sr. Paschal, as she was to become known – had indeed developed an interest in becoming a missionary sister and Ireland being the deeply Catholic country it was at the time, she had begun to imagine a life elsewhere as part of that broader movement. Through guile and determination, she managed to return to Drishane on a retreat and from within the convent walls, she informed her family of her decision to join.
Some years later, she then had to say goodbye to her loved ones and her homeland for what she thought would be forever as she journeyed by boat to Japan, where the decision had been taken to send her.
The film charts the course of her life journey, the four camps she spent time in during World War 2, the culture shock she experienced arriving on the other side of the world with not a word of Japanese and how she navigated all of these challenges.
At 100 years of age, she recounts her memories with extraordinary energy, verve, joy and wit. Jennie was, above all, a committed and loving English teacher who built incredibly loving bonds with legions of Japanese women who went through her classrooms over seven decades. The film portrays the sense of deep gratitude that these women have for Jennie at the end of her life. It’s a story of love returned in gratitude by those who have been loved, as her life reaches its end. Jennie is a sublime example of unconditional love – every time I show the film, there are tears and there is laughter.
How did you originally get involved?
My grandmother had maintained close ties with Jennie down through the years by letter writing. I could not understand why Jennie had returned to Ireland after 75 years in Japan knowing that she had expressed a wish to live out her days there. While she was allowed to return on holidays to Ireland every few years from the 1960s onwards, she had left on the understanding she would never return and this “sacrifice” – as she understood it – was part of what had made sense of her decision to commit herself fully to her work as a missionary and an English teacher in Japan for the rest of her days. It simply was not part of her plan to come back to Ireland but that decision was essentially taken for her. As in the army or the diplomatic corps, missionary orders are hierarchical and “personnel” don’t decide where and when they are moved from one location to another.
I, however, found the decision to send such an elderly women home quite bizarre and I began to interview her. It turned into a year-long project of visiting her and filming her every time I returned to see my family in Cork (I have been living in Paris for 12 years now working as TV journalist at the France 24 international news channel). Jennie and I developed a really strong bond and began writing letters to each other. I then decided it was essential to travel to Japan with a message from Jennie that I would deliver to her loved ones and past pupils in a bid to close the circle and heal the suffering of her separation from her adopted homeland. I brought video messages back to Jennie after my trip to Japan and she witnessed one last time the huge love and gratitude felt by so many of those she had dedicated her life to. It was a massively gratifying and moving journey for me.
You must have been thrilled to have such an amazing story to tell.
I was intimidated by it in the beginning as I had never imagined that I would try to make a film. It was the strength of her story and the fact that she seemed to simply be in death’s waiting room with few taking notice of how extraordinary she was apart from those who knew and loved her that compelled me to up-skill fast and find a way of recording her memories before she passed on. What I was most impressed by was her energy and her memory and her ability to recount stories well. She was able to recite ‘Daffodils’ by Wordsworth in full from memory. She would sing ‘Danny Boy’ perfectly on note… Her storytelling and ability to entertain and be joyful at such a ripe old age was astounding.
What were Jennie’s abiding memories of Japan?
The relationships she had developed. I prompted her and pushed her a lot to talk about the major historical events she had lived through but in the end what rose to the surface every time was quite simply her almost zen-like presence and devotion to the moment and to human relationships. It made me reflect on the values she had lived by and it made me examine – as someone who is not a practicing Catholic – what it was about her values and how she encountered and merged those values with her host / adopted country that explained her vitality and vigour at 100 years old.
What did you yourself learn spending time with her?
I learned that to be giving and loving and joyful is the secret to happiness. It’s such an old adage but she seemed the living embodiment and proof that “in giving you receive”. It really is as simple as that. She radiated love, joy and happiness. Simply being in her presence was uplifting. She came along at a time in my life where I was searching for meaning and answers to some of life’s great questions and her simple presence seemed to answer those questions in a very simple way. I’m much more at peace with myself now than I was starting out in this project. Also, the doing of the project and the resources I had to draw on, the strength and courage I had to find to overcome the obstacles in my way helped me to become a more confident, happy person. My confidence grew because I had formulated a dream – to preserve her energy and her memory for transmission to others – and I had executed it.
What can you tell us about the archive footage you use?
I drew heavily on archive footage from the Irish Film Archive, British Pathe, NHK in Japan and other sources to illustrate the richness of her oral memory as recounted in our conversations. She was a little deaf and she insisted I come out from behind the camera to sit next to her. As she told me her stories, they came to life in my mind’s eye and I sifted through archives of early 20th century Ireland and Japan for hours on end to find the best images and the one’s that most closely matched what I had envisaged as she told me her stories.
And the footage of interviews… how much were you working with in the edit and how did that work out?
I went completely “mental” in the filming and collecting of footage stage… I had 30 hours of interviews with her and added to that interviews with other missionaries who had returned from Japan, as well as historians, etc., etc. I didn’t know where to draw the line and I learned a harsh lesson in the editing stage! My wonderful editor Elisabeth Feytit and I quickly realised that – as had been the original intention – Jennie’s story was preeminent and so she stayed, those who knew her stayed, and all other interviews ended up on the cutting room floor.
Rather than interviews, it’s conversations, which are made more natural by you appearing yourself in the film.
As mentioned above that was her decision, and there’s quite a funny sequence in the film where you see her deciding that. Because I’m a TV journalist and used to being in front of the camera and because Jennie had spent decades at the top of a classroom, neither of us were self-conscious in front of the camera so I do think the conversations that emerged were very natural. Also, in some respects I was experimenting and had the idea that, at worst, this would be a family record and didn’t have to be shared – so I wasn’t worried what people would think.
And funding the film…
The question of funding and distribution had not even been remotely touched on during the filming stage. I did a crowdfunding campaign around a year later in order to make up the editing and production costs. I had no official funding for this project which was entirely paid for by the crowdfunding and by the school she worked at in Tokyo who understood and fully supported the motivation for the film.
Thanks to Your Noble Shadow screens in the Cinemobile on Sunday, 16th July at 16:15 as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.
The 29th Galway Film Fleadh runs 11 – 16 July 2017