Older Than Ireland
Alex Fegan, until then a complete unknown, made a bit of a stir a few years ago with The Irish Pub, a look at a very particular part of the Irish experience, an effort for which he was, quite correctly, well praised. Not content with that, he has again employed his style of documentary filmmaking – I suppose I would dub it a recordation documentary, as opposed to an exploratory or investigative one – this time in the service of Ireland’s oldest citizens, those whose lifetimes exceed that of the modern day state, whose experiences run the gambit of, childhood, war, love, family and growing old.
There isn’t all that much too really say here. Fegan’s interview are charming and delightful, mournful and full of joy, all in equal measure. The men and women he has managed to get on camera are a diverse bunch, some clearly coming to the end of their lives, and others still doing farming work as if they were much younger people. There are twinkles in the eye as past romances are remembered, and tears when many sorrows get brought up. For people whose lives have extended so long, a wide gambit of emotions is to be expected in any recounting, and Older Than Ireland has that in spades.
Those seeking the secrets behind such long life will probably be disappointed, as the diverse range of people Fegan has put into his final cut is so varied that it essentially precludes such an understanding. One of the first interviewees lights up a cigarette as she talks, another decries healthy eating, and there are no grand similarities between the subjects. There are more women than men, and that’s about it. They are an open-minded, tolerant bunch (a more cynical side of me suspects Fegan has been careful about who actually got the final nod for inclusion) who decry modern youths obsession with technology and physical isolation, and the growing insulation of Irish communities, while recounting the happy times of their own youths, outside of the frequently brutal school system.
I said there was no grand similarities, but that isn’t quite true. They do all have this incredible Irishness to all of them, from the woman who refers to President Higgins as “yer man” to the all too casual conversation about bodily ills in the middle of a newsagents that two other share later on. “Irishness” is not something that can be easily defined, beyond the observation of the simple wit, warmth and friendliness evident in every moment of the concise and proper 81 minute running time.
The chronological nature of Fegan’s approach is nicely implemented, the simple piano invokes thoughts of Pixar (most obviously Up of course) and the simple steady camerawork is all that is required. One can find much to fascinate just in the backgrounds of the places these people are being interviewed: warm, inviting fireplaces, breezy rural gardens, prim and proper Dublin suburban homes, minimalist nursing home bedsides: a visual record of where the elderly end up in Ireland, with paintings, pictures of crucifixes on the walls behind them. Fegan remains silent, and lets his subjects do the talking for him.
And talk they do: some very affecting stories are littered throughout Older Than Ireland, from fathers lost while young to the passing of spouses, hurts that never really heal. There are certainly members of this documentary’s cast that feel that they have, perhaps, lived enough. But there is also great joy to be gained from sections of the film too, and one cannot help but be inspired by the sights of centenarians living active lives, and to hell with anyone who might dare to think they shouldn’t.
I suppose if I was to level any criticism at the film, it is that it offers very little challenge to the viewer. If you had asked me what I thought I was going to be getting with Older Than Ireland before I went in to see it, I would have said a sometimes funny, sometimes sad but altogether Irish series of interviews with the most elderly citizens of the state, and that is exactly what I got. The experience was thus enjoyable, but not exactly very stimulating. There is no grander point behind Older Than Ireland, as Fegan jumps from topic to topic at remarkable speed.
What the centenarians think of modern Ireland in comparison to the past, the political evolution of the country, the status of the old today and fears for what may come soon, the film lands on each topic for only a few minutes before it is speeding on to discussions of first kisses and lost loves. How does the daughter of a British army officer compare to the relative of republican fighters? How does the bedridden contrast with the man arguing over his right to still drive a car? This is not some fleeting and unimportant group if people: there are, apparently, over 3’000 of them at time of writing, and to see more exploration of these views would have been fascinating to me. But, then again, I suppose Fegan can only record what these people want to talk about, and who I am to tell a 100 year old what they should and should not consider important for a modern audience?
So, Older Than Ireland is a good documentary, just one that is unlikely to resonate for very long, or outside of this country. The impressions, recollections and commentary of the 100+ club are to be treasured, and Older Than Ireland is as good a repository as I have seen. Bubbling over with genuine heart and emotional moments that tug endearingly at the heartstrings, Fegan’s latest – and hopefully not last – is one that I recommend.
(All images are copyright of Snackbox Films).