Cian Geoghegan tells Film Ireland about his short film System, which screens at this year’ Galway Film Fleadh. When Direct Provision was first introduced in Ireland, the time an asylum seeker was to spend awaiting approval of their claim was said to be a period of no more than six months. Jerome lived in Direct Provision for eight years while his claim was processed.
The title System might strike the reader as vague, even obtuse. However, it was important to define the film as one that embodies not just individual but collective struggles. The film is a documentary that follows the testimony of Jerome Kamara. Jerome spent eight years in Direct Provision – his words are at once singular to him and a microcosm of collective struggles. He expresses frustrations borne not out of individual discomfort, but systemic oppression. His anonymity and facelessness in the film reflects the status of many who feel without a voice in their own affairs. In a world where the onus is so often on the individual, either as the cause of or potential solution to social issues, we wanted System to tell a different story, where the actions of many create a systemic architecture that obfuscates responsibility, leaving those in the system feeling adrift and hopeless.
The other way you could look at the title is that it’s discreet and reflects the shrouded nature of the asylum struggle in much of Irish public life. System is an abstract term, but also a sterile one. A favourite term of question-dodgers and apologists alike. Many would prefer for the legacy of Direct Provision to stay in the background, to remain a technocratic arrangement chugging away imperfectly without ever brushing up against their own comfortable lives. The film is approached with the knowledge that viewers may only know DP as an abstract or unfamiliar concept. Jerome and I were trying to illuminate the emotional dimension of the struggle, beyond impersonal facts and statistics.
The great injustices forced upon asylum seekers in DP include but are not limited to a lack of freedom to cook their own food, to choose who they share a room with and (until recently) to enter the labour market. This is without even mentioning the conditions of the centres themselves, many of which are in dire need of upkeep which the many private owners and operators refuse to supply. More recently, the rampant spread of COVID-19 throughout Direct Provision centres, even when nationwide spread was at its lowest point, highlight a lack of privacy and dignity offered by the centres. This is an issue that cannot be ignored in Irish public life, and thankfully the subject is growing ever more present in the national consciousness. Though perhaps not swiftly enough, nor with the urgency you would expect, seeing as subsequent governments are quick to condemn Direct Provision, but slow to act and end it.
Even with this heightened consciousness, there is still an ignorance about the conditions of DP among the general public. There is a general assumption that Irish society is liberal and progressive. You read of human rights abuses abroad and let out a sigh of relief – such things could never happen here. System seeks to emphasise the struggle that is on our doorstep and so often overlooked. This was achieved through the visual focus, which was not on the faces of subjects or tangible, literal representations of life in DP. It is instead on the mundane and every-day, captured in the abstract at obtuse angles to convey what Jerome describes as the “different worlds” lived in by the Irish citizen and the asylum seeker. The former could perceive the changing seasons with a passing glance, without giving it much thought. The latter could view the coming of Autumn with mounting dread, as a deportation order could arrive at any moment.
When I watch the film back, I am reminded of images from Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. Resnais films Auschwitz without any attempt to stage or recreate past events. In contrast, he shows it as it was in 1956, overgrown, derelict and empty. The horrors that once occurred there now haunt the space. The film is itself about memory, the necessity of remembering. Resnais’ images are defined by what is not in them, those phantom absences. His attempt to call the past to mind through abstraction is more effective than a period drama with thousands of extras in historically accurate costume. System feeds off this idea, but its subject is not a past at risk for being forgotten, but a present (and indeed a future) being ignored.
I was self-conscious of my own position as the filmmaker in this story. I lacked the clarity and immediacy of lived experience, and as such I had to defer to my subject. Indeed, the film was made in their service, in attempt to reflect and translate their visceral spoken words to the screen. Jerome was a phenomenal subject to work with – he expresses his painful experience with vulnerability and fearlessness. His testimony is biting, honest and human. I knew from my first time brainstorming with him that my visuals would take a backseat for System, his voice firmly driving the narrative.
The production was unorthodox, as we began working together at the start of the second lockdown last September. As I am based in Kildare and Jerome in Waterford, we were unable to collaborate in person. His moving testimony was the result of many long phone calls, where we would discuss his life in a free-form, quasi-interview format – although nothing was being recorded. Throughout, we would note to each other what nuggets of information would be worth including in the film, and what approach to take to certain subjects. A few hours after our call, I would receive an audio file, recorded by Jerome in his home studio, reflecting on the main points of our conversation. This unusual method worked comfortably for the both of us, allowing there to be collaboration in the piece’s structure, but an intimate privacy in its recording that allowed Jerome to truly express himself without any inhibitions – and have final say on how his story would be told.
The purpose of System, beyond anything else, was to elevate Jerome’s testimony. My contribution to the film was carefully considered with this in mind. My visual approach had to interpret what Jerome was saying, expand it into a visual realm. As such, abstraction was necessary. Only this way could I treat Jerome with both the empathy and respect he deserved.
It appears to me that the system of Direct Provision (intentionally or not) infantilises those that live within it. It robs them of their autonomy to cook, live and move freely, making them passive spectators of their own lives. It trains them to live in emotional insecurity once they become naturalised. Jerome flies in the face of this as a man who has faced an interminable stay in the system but has nevertheless emerged strong, loud and fearless. As such, I could not have found a better collaborator. The fire in Jerome’s belly is felt in every second of the film, and it would be nothing without his input. Equally, I am humbled by the pride and support that Jerome has shown for the finished film. His praise is worth more to me than any accolade. It means the world.
Tickets for all 45 features and 100+ shorts are available to book from www.GalwayFilmFleadh.com.
This year’s Galway Film Fleadh runs from 20-25 July.