The Man Who Wanted To Fly
Like a lot of Irish people of my age, I am just a single generation away from the countryside. My mother and her family are/were from rural North Clare a place that, in her younger years and all the way up to my own young years, was one of the more isolated parts of the country (not too much anymore). I don’t identify very much with that part of my ancestry if I am being honest, but I still have some experience with that kind of rural area, with the people who inhabit it, and the people who have inhabited it for a very long time.
I was thinking about that when I got the chance to see this, a documentary from the little-known Frank Shouldice that got its initial festival release last year, but is only reaching a wider audience around now. Despite the eye-grabbing title and the core of the premise, I saw in the promotional material for The Man Who Wanted To Fly something more: a look at life in rural Ireland today for that older generation, a life that is slowly, but inevitably, slipping away. But it hasn’t gone just yet.
Bobby Coote is an elderly Cavan resident, who has a simple dream: to own and fly his own aircraft. Living near his brother Ernie, Bobby, a tinkerer by nature, goes about buying his own microlight plane, building a runway and getting lessons, but there are plenty of obstacles standing his way.
“If you’re fighting, you’re alive” says Bobby Coote early on, as he outlines his own modern-day existence. In different sections, Ernie states that Bobby’s dream doesn’t match his age while Bobby replies that “the old man is coming”. Shouldice couldn’t really have happened upon a better declaration of theme, even if the subject of his documentary is not saying this as some sort of rage against the dying of the light. The Man Who Wanted To Fly is about a man who wants to fly, but it is not just about that: it is also about the inevitable degradation of time, the isolation of rural lifestyles and efforts to prevent obsolescence in old age.
To illustrate these issues, Shouldice has in front of him the sibling pair of Ernie and Bobby Coote. The two serve as an excellent example of common themes across Ireland’s rural landscape: confirmed bachelors living in somewhat ramshackle homes, whose lives in old age comprise attempts to keep busy in various ways. Ernie keeps birds, operates a CB radio and enjoys old westerns; Bobby makes fiddles out of discarded wooden furniture (that got him an appearance on RTE in the 80’s), repairs watches and is a self-taught aficionado of all things mechanical. The two are neighbours, and their daily interactions are often limited to just each other. However, where one has his feet planted on safe secure terra firma, the other has his head, and sights, firmly in the sky.
Bobby, easily the more outgoing of the two, is the one with the nominally crazy dream of operating his own aircraft, and perhaps with more enthusiasm than sense when it comes to the accomplishment of this task. You’re instantly struck by the purity of the goal, and by Bobby’s unfailing focus on it. Such verve comes across as infectiously charming: before even buying the aircraft in question, Bobby and a local farming friend have cut a makeshift runway in the flattest field they have access to.
Bobby refuses to brook any indications that he may not get to fly, even if they are coming from his brother, who plainly predicts such a outcome is never going to come to pass (evidence of a slight difference between the otherwise friendly brothers). Ernie prefers to play, ineffectively, with a remote control model helicopter. It’s hard not to think of Alex Fegan’s Older Than Ireland in the depiction of the Irish elderly, both in terms of that charm, and also in a slight sense of bland positivism.
The inherent comedic potential of the story is side-lined by welcome intrusions of reality. The Coote’s lost a younger brother in a tragic accident only a short time before filming began: while unsaid, the trauma of this event seems part of Bobby’s drive to make the most of the time that he has left. You can see this in the slightly concerning scenes where Bobby appears to spend a great deal of cash very quickly on the microlight aircraft he purchases, despite his apparent lack of knowledge of its make-up. The delighted seller of the aircraft, which is later revealed to have numerous mechanical problems, happily accepts a sizable bundle of fifties for payment, making me wonder if some kind of back-alley aircraft sales market exists. Bobby is largely unconcerned: as he himself adroitly points out, it’s not like he can take the money with him, and he has no wife or children to consider.
On the other side of things, Ernie is a retiring man who decides to raincheck a night out at the pub in favour of “locking the door so no one will bother me”, a sentiment that even I have heard too much in rural surrounds. He enjoys a self-cooked Christmas dinner alone, Bobby nowhere to be seen; later in the documentary he fishes alone, remembering the deceased friend he used to enjoy the activity with (Ernie can’t say “he’s dead”; instead, “he’s in heaven”). Elderly life in Cavan is thus one filled with a very palpable loneliness, as friends and family depart the mortal coil, and those that are left have little other option than to get used to the quiet.
Ernie seems almost at pains to act as if his status in life is to his liking, but it will be a cold heart indeed that is not at least somewhat touched by the nature of his existence. Bobby, on the other hand, insists he is happier on his own, dismissing distant romantic connections as ancient history he no longer considers. And yet. There is no social media to assuage the solitude for this generation (Shouldice makes sure to focus on a sign of a very rural Luddite elitism in the local pub: “No WIFI here – talk to each other”).
If Bobby is telling the truth and really does seem to take a joy out of solitary living, it also appears to be solitary living out of necessity: rural Cavan is as much of a victim of Dublin’s pull and “brain drain” as any other part of rural Ireland. The local pub doesn’t have all that many patrons: the crowd that shows up to see if Bobby can actually pull of his plan isn’t all that big (true to form, the local priest is featured prominently); the would-be aviators have to travel into Northern Ireland to get the technical expertise they need (good thing they got in before Brexit). Shouldice’s documentary never really comments on this directly, but it is striking how nearly every person depicted is at least middle-aged: there do not appear to be many young people in this part of Cavan. That absence, even if unstated, is keenly felt.
Shouldice, wit cinematographer Dave Perry, directs his feature in a simple enough style, with a made-for-TV vibe, right down to conveniently placed act breaks, just perfect for advertisements. That’s OK though: things still have a very decent flow, and while the film may feel like it is over staying its welcome towards the end, it never feels too draining. This was a real labour of love by all accounts, taking over five years to make from start to finish, and it shows in its polished nature. Shouldice is sure to capture as much of the two Coote’s domiciles as he can, managing to fit the sense of frenzied chaos, organised or no, into the frame through the assorted bric-a-brac.
Aerial sequences, and there are a few in the last half hour, are shot simply enough, through static Go-Pro cameras, but still manage to capture Bobby’s delight at finally getting into the air, even if it is while an instructor is doing most of the actual flying. It’s in such things – hard-in close-ups of faces, whether it in Go-Pro or interview style – that the real emotion of the piece comes through. In numerous instances both Bobby and Ernie seem close to tears but, as if they have practiced the task, refrain.
I will leave it up to the viewer to find out if Bobby Coote fulfills his dream by the end. Beyond that question, it’s great to finally take in an unequivocally Irish film this year (I’ve been remiss on that, admittedly) and it’s great to take in a well-made documentary. The Man Who Wanted To Fly is an excellently made, emotive piece, that chronicles an interesting story at its core, and which manages to tackle a number of different topics besides. The world that it depicts is disappearing bit by bit, and the time may come when men like the Coote brothers will not be around anymore. This documentary stands as a testament to them, to those who refuse to let go of dreams on the basis of age. Recommended.
(This film was produced by Loosehorse, with financial support from RTE, the Irish Film Board and Dublin Aerospace).