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