Alan Gilsenan Interview

Pat Collins spoke to Alan Gilsenan about Home Movie Nights and his work as a documentary-maker.

It is probably true that Alan Gilsenan is the most prolific Irish documentary director of his generation. It could also be said that very few have come close to being as consistently accomplished and thought provoking as Gilsenan. It's remarkable to learn that he is still only 33. He seems to have been around for ever. Gilsenan has said himself that Documentary is very subjective and sometimes the documentary can tell more about the film-makers obsession than the subject's obsession. If this is true, then Gilsenan's obsession must be 'change in society'. Looking back over his career he has consistently tackled subjects which, if not always controversial were certainly concentrated on transitional periods of modern life. With Stories from the Silence he examined AIDS in Ireland before there was any real concern: in Prophet Songs he tackled the issue of disenchanted priests who left the Church. This was before the Bishop Casey watershed (Where were you when you heard about Bishop Casey? –The Irish equivalent of the JFK assassination). Probably most famous of all was his documentary The Road to God Knows Where. Made in 1986, it took Ireland by storm. It was commissioned by Channel 4 who told Gilsenan to make a documentary about young people in Ireland without the "Clannad-mist in a bog' stuff; -the real Ireland. What he did make was not to the taste of many sections of Irish society. "There wasn't any theory behind it and at the time it generated a surprising amount of controversy, and I remember being shocked. It wasn't that I set out to do a polemic. The IDA publicly condemned it and said it was a negative image of Ireland. At the time there was the optimism of the IDA - we're on the move' kind of thing. Then there was radio debates and letters to the paper and of course I thought it was great. There were very few things made about Ireland at that time. It's surprising that it's still being shown and while I think it a record of the country at that time it 's certainly not a record of the country now and you have to be careful."

Regarded as the boy wonder of Irish film some years ago, he seemed to fade from the limelight but all the while he has been working on projects that few Irish documentaries film-makers get the opportunity to work on. Most recently Home Movie Nights has proved a tremendous success. The TAM ratings were sufficiently high to warrant RTE holding back the remaining six episodes until the Autumn, when they feel people will get a better opportunity to see them. The most fascinating aspect of HMN is the sheer simplicity of the structure. The interviewees are not extraordinary characters who have done extraordinary things. They are much like the people who Brendán Feiritéar so expertly explores in his documentaries.
" I had to resist the natural temptation to go for the exciting and the glitzy footage. I wanted ordinary people talking about their lives. I do think that film-makers have to be very careful not to always always go for the exciting or the glamorous, the stuff that will grab instant attention in the papers or whatever. I didn't want to over editorialise. While you were attracted to the stranger footage, or some body who was well known, I actually tried to resist that because I felt that the power of it was in its simplicity."

Through HMN's, Gilsenan again seems to have iniated debate about present day Ireland by looking at our past. Though the debate is of a gentler variety it is still surprising the reaction it has attracted. Watching the series, it is a natural reaction to become all nostalgic about the times depicted in the series. It illustrates that the accelerated modernisation of Ireland in the last thirty years has been phenomenal. The fifties, though undoubtedly a bleak time for many, in this series seems like a tranquil and serene idyll. When making the series this notion that we've certainly lost something in the drive for modernisation has been forged in his mind. "In the process of a country growing, where you're trying to cast off the shadows and oppressive forces which Ireland has had to cope with but there is the danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Many of things that we consider traditionally Irish are the things that are rejected by the modern Ireland. I think we've got to the stage where we start thinking 'Oh that was all a fiction. That Ireland was invented by John Hinds – we never really wore shawls - that we never had asses and carts - that we never ploughed the fields and we never had Corpus Christi processions'. What's been interesting about this footage is that yes, this actually existed and it was a not too distant part of our heritage. I think you've got to be very careful that in the drive to modernise Ireland and become part of Europe and all that, that you actually lose out on essential parts of our heritage."

Religion plays a fundamental part of the series. Peoples lives were marked by religious events and ceremonies - baptism, confirmation and weddings etc. Gilsenan himself was brought up in a devout Catholic household but always thought it a benign influence. "Something I tried to touch on in Prophet Songs is that Catholicism is part of our heritage. Catholic spirituality is certainly a part of us. If you are going to reject, you have to know what you're rejecting. And also talking to predominantly older people which we don't tend to do anymore – generally you tend to socialise with people your own age, certainly in Dublin that's the case – and I think the sense is that that past isn't so far away and there is the danger of reinterpreting the history of the country so drastically that you end up not knowing where you're from. Catholicism is instilled in us. There is a tendency, particularly among our generation, over the last 10 or 15 years, to say that suddenly all that oppressive stuff is gone – the Catholic Church and all that Republican and nationalist stuff – we've got rid of all that now, – 'Our parents had to deal with it and they were all messed up by it but we are all cool and we're modern and we're European' when in actual fact I think it's very dangerous. Particularly in the nationalistic sense that it is very dangerous . I think to a large degree the Catholic impulse and the nationalist impulse is imbued in us as a nation and if you don't acknowledge that and ignore it then it becomes a dangerous part of your psyche. There is a definite danger that if throw out what makes up your cultural heritage as a nation that you end up with just espresso bars like this (A coffee 'house' in Temple Bar). I mean where are we. Is this Chicago? Is this Venice? You get tourists who say 'I want to go to Galway. Galway is supposed to be wonderful.' No it isn't. Galway has become Covent Garden. You're not going to Galway to find the real Ireland you're going to find Covent garden and a few Dutch tourists. I'm not anti-progress or anti- a cross fertilisation of cultures. It's been very healthy, but I think that you need to be very careful about losing the plot and you can sound very waffly talking about this but you can actually end up in this international void and I suppose HMN has reminded me of that. It's a bit like looking back on your family as a nation and being reminded."

If being at the cutting edge of Ireland's woes wasn't sufficient, Gilsenan has also turned his hand to exploring the underbelly of America through a series called God Bless America. This is a series of six programmes where six different writers discuss their feelings about their country and the city they live in. Three of these programmes, Neil Simon, Gore Vidal and Scott Turow have already been broadcast on ITV and the remaining three with Patricia Cornwell, Marsha Hunt & Garrison Keillor will be broadcast in the Autumn. This series also marks a new level of maturity and assuredness in his approach and style.
The programmes concerning Al Gore Vidal and Patracia Cornwell respectively are particularly insightful into how Americans feel about their country. Gore looks back to a time when Washington was a small and intimate place and the American dream was still alive. Cornwell articulates her disgust at the depravity all around her and while agreeing with Gore that American has lost something crucial, her answer to America's problems seems to end with the death penalty. From Gilsenan's conversation it is easy to see on which side of the fence he comes from in relation to American society. "America has lost its heart, and Gore is often seen as this very cynical, sharp, satirical critic but the thing about Gore is that he loves America and what it stood for. When you read the declaration of Independence and its a wonderful, wonderful document - it's a statement of freedom. There is great sadness among older Americans at the loss of this ideal, and anger predominantly from the black experience. Even though Patracia Cornwall's clarity was admirable she was very right-wing, paranoid and mad, but they are all very different. Garrison Keeler had a much more benign view of America, Neil Simon was very nostalgic and warm. Marsha Hunt was very much about black America."

The one common thread throughout most of the six documentaries is that Black - White relations are bitterly divided. To judge from the series the good old USA is on the brink. The prediction that Marshall Law is imminent was common to both Gore and Cornwall. "The American dream hasn't worked out and its exploding. In every city the overriding obsession is the 'black versus white' conflict and no matter what your politics, the belief is that the LA riots was only the beginning and there is definitely going to be an explosion. In the series, Marsha Hunt says that Democracy and capitalism succeed in America because of slavery so the American family was born out of a crime, and that until America comes to terms with that crime, there won't be any peace. It is a violent place. It's also very polarised. It was the one area which dominated all the films in a way which I never expected. I was always very anti-American . We think over here that America is very insular and that's a fact, but we think we know everything about America because of Hollywood and because of TV, but we don't really. We don't know what makes it tick. While making the series, I saw a different side of America. You realise how little we know about the place. And it is in a state of crisis definitely."

Back in Ireland Gilsenan thinks that this country is also becoming more polarised. If Gilsenan was to make 'The Road to God Knows Where - 10 years on' would the same issues crop up again? "There are a lot of people totally disenfranchised. Because of all this development we've convinced ourselves that we've escaped all that, and that Ireland is moving into the future and I think that the country has just become more polarised, and there are still those people out there - the homeless, the unemployed, the drug addicts and they are no better now than they were in 1986. They are actually worse off. What we've done is just disguised it with all this development. There are a lot of good things happening, but what has given Ireland a sense of pride is the cultural achievements. You can fool yourself that reality doesn't exist. If you are involved in the arts you can remove yourself even further and live in some media limbo. There is tremendous anger here and it is only being dampened by drugs. It's not that I think people should be on any kind of crusade but you just have to remind yourself that the reality that you live in is not necessarily the reality of everybody else and that despite that the pride that has grown in Ireland in the last ten years you have to remember that it isn't a paradise. It's easy to be fooled by the veneer."

When Gilsenan accepted his Jacob's award for The Road to God Knows Where he lashed out at the lack of government initiatives for film following the closure of the first film board. Gilsenan says now that "I just thought it would be stupid not to say it" but he also feels that, with all the new initiatives that are in place now, there has crept in a new "careerism" which might not be healthy for the industry.
"People are doing programmes now just because they will get the commission. Obviously RTE have certain things they need to fulfil but I think you have to be very careful to retain the passion and the interest in what you are doing. I'm constantly meeting people who are getting involved in film-making for no other reason than they think its glamorous and fun or whatever. There is careerism at the expense of the work. There is a real danger that we believe our own publicity, believing that we are all talented just because the environment for film-making has improved. It's too hard a career just to be a career. There has to be ideas and passion and there has to be talent."

Gilsenans next venture will be a very low budget experimental drama called 'All Souls Day' which he wrote himself. Though his near future plans are all feature dramas he still feels that he could just as easily return to 'smaller' projects if he wanted to. "There is a danger that especially since the improved climate for film, that you believe'bigger is better' - which isn't necessarily true. You need to learn. I'm still learning! Sure, I'd love to do a 70mm feature film with a big budget but equally I'd like to think that if I wanted to do a 5 minute film on Super 8 that I'd do that rather than get into this mad-cap career ladder. There is a danger of just leaping in and you have to learn your craft. Don't just write film scripts in your bedroom, make anything, get a video camera, make a 3 minute documentary."
Sounds like good advice!


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