David Hennessy spoke to film maker Treasa O’Brien about her documentary film Town of Strangers which was inspired by- and made with the help of- the people of Gort.
Town of Strangers, a new documentary, begins with its director Treasa O’Brien calling out to the people of Gort on a megaphone from her van on a loudspeaker.
Looking for people who wanted to be part of a film, she asked for people to come and tell their stories, their dreams, memories, gossip, even lies.
People of all genders, ages and nationalities were welcome and no acting experience was necessary.
Treasa was not expecting where those auditions would take her.
Treasa had been developing a fiction script that was set in Gort, and she wanted to incorporate stories from the town and potentially cast first time actors.
The auditions, however, irrevocably changed the course of the film.
Treasa was astonished and humbled by the people that came to those auditions, and how they opened up.
The more Treasa got to know the people, the more she adapted and improvised the film eventually leaving the fictional idea behind.
She had been searching for a cinematic language that would transcend the binary of documentary or fiction and the result is a ‘hybrid’ feature film that uses auditions, observational documentary and magical realist dream scenes and this matches the hybrid identity of the people featured in it.
The Irish World chatted to award-winning filmmaker, writer and visual artist Treasa O’Brien when she was in London for a sold out preview screening in the Bertha DocHouse which was Town of Strangers’ very first screening outside Ireland.
Treasa told The Irish World: “I was working on a fiction script about two women working in a meat factory and at the end of this film they were going to burn down the factory.
“But anyone who saw my script said that would never happen.
“I went to Gort and the meat factory had been burnt down, so reality was already more interesting than fiction.
“It was never going to be straight fiction anyway.
“I had a script but it was nuts and bolts and I wanted to bring a lot of nuance into that through research into the town and I called for auditions with this in mind.
“And when people came to the auditions, I was just really surprised at what they told me. I was so surprised by what they told me.
“I was asking them questions about what home meant to them because that was a big theme, asking them a bit about Gort and I was asking for dreams, lies, memories and gossip.
“I was really interested in these things because they’re neither documentary nor fiction but they’re real.
“They’re the stories that we tell ourselves or ways that we think about the world to ourselves and use our imagination but it’s not fictional necessarily.
“I went in with these kind of ideas and then what people came to me with in those auditions was just so surprising that I became interested in them as people and their lives and I started to get to know them better and I was still feeling that out.
“People told me things and used the audition space in a way I was really surprised by and I guess I felt I had to meet that.
“They really used that space to say, ‘Look at me, I want to tell you my story and I want to take this space and I want to be seen’.
“And they’re people who are not normally seen, a lot of people would be what we might call marginalised.
“I’d been in the town a while at that stage, I could see that those people weren’t seen or if they were, they were seen in a quite reductive manner so this was a place where they were taking the reins and saying, ‘This is where I’ll tell my story of myself’.
“So I guess I was surprised the auditions did that and so it taught me something about film making and what a space like that can do so I then went with that.
“It was a long time, it was somewhere halfway through a three year process that the fiction fell away and a documentary began.”
Featuring migrants, travellers, refugees, ‘hippies’, the film reflects on the themes of home and migration.
You identified with all the different subjects in different ways, didn’t you? “Yes, I think I did.
“I use the term hippies because the people themselves self-describe as that.
“At the time I was working on this I was also back and forth to Greece working in Lesbos in solidarity camps working with people seeking refuge so I was on a very front line place there working as an activist in a high crisis situation where people were literally arriving onto the beach and I was helping them off the boats into camps and so on.
“I was reflecting on this when I was writing the script and Gort in some ways was a place to reflect on that where you’re seeing the aftermath.
“Rather than outsider or migrant, the term I use is people with a hybrid identity so I guess there’s kind of a meta with the film then because the film itself has this hybrid identity.
“There’s this hybrid identity that people have, they’re belonging to two cultures.
“The shortest way I describe the film is it’s a film about longing and belonging.”
Town of Strangers called for ethical and responsible film- making.
Anyone who decided they did not want to feature could be removed and they all had a chance to see it as it took shape.
The most important thing for Treasa was that the film did not hurt or harm anyone.
“Hamid, for example, when he came to the audition presented as a very vulnerable person.
“He basically says he would like to take his life so I’m just trying to mind him in that scenario and did some follow up with him but was thinking, ‘Okay, we don’t make the film’.
“But we actually became friends outside of that and about a year later we started filming when he was in a better place and he wanted to film.
“I suppose there was a lot of responsibility in that and a lot of ethics to think about but he wanted to do it and so to not put him in was also an ethical consideration so I just did it as carefully as I could with informed consent each time, not just a general one but every time.”
Originally from Killarney, Treasa lived in London for several years, where she studied film directing at Goldsmiths. She completed a PhD in Film Practice at University of Westminster where she worked on the film Town of Strangers with Joshua Oppenheimer (director of The Act of Killing) and May Ingawanij as her supervisors.
She was Executive Director of Open City Documentary Festival 2012-14 and was part of the curatorial ‘gang’ of London Essay Film Festival from 2014-2018.
Although she was living in London when she started the film, she now lives in Galway.=
“Because my first films were more like activist docs I guess with Town of Strangers I’m trying to make a new language or really look at what cinema can do so the issues are there and the politics are there for sure but also looking at how form and content can inform each other so I was trying to get away from the talking heads that I would have had in some of my activist docs before.
“That’s why I came up with this idea of doing auditions, they’re a different space.
“I ended up doing a PhD in documentary practice and I did that in Westminster with Joshua Oppenheimer and May Ingawanij and they shepherded me I guess through the PhD process and it was practice based so I made Town of Strangers while doing the PhD so it was a very reflexive, reflective process.
“That’s why it took me so long to make it. I was coming back and forth to it, reflecting on it, writing about it, making it again, coming back and forth, so it was for me a very deep inquiry into what cinema and documentary can be rather than what it is.
“I had been living in London for a few years prior to coming back and I had made a film called Eat Your Children with Mary Jane O’Leary and we had made a film together that was looking at activism in Ireland especially after the bank bailout.
“That film was looking at popular resistance in Ireland or the lack of and the different paths it took in comparison to other countries but it became a film about Irish identity in some ways because it’s looking back, it’s like an alternative history of Ireland because it looks back on the Land League for example and some of the things like Boycotting.
“I was interested in Irish identity and Irish society now and how much it’s changed.
“We’re a country of emigrants and Ireland in the last 20 years has become a country of immigrants where migrants are coming into the country and how much that’s changing Ireland and how people are adapting to that.
“Irish identity- lots of identities are- complicated but I suppose one of the big things is Irish people are white so there’s a certain privilege with that but yet we also have this history of being colonised so we have that identity as well so there’s a real duality going on there. So I think it’s really interesting to see now how people are changing and adapting to that and this is an ongoing conversation that needs to be happening in every country not just Ireland. I guess Ireland’s particularity of being very privileged now but being very underprivileged in recent history- I mean it’s really only two generations ago when Ireland was in real poverty and is now one of the richer nations of the world so that’s a massive change.”
At the time Treasa started the film, the town of Gort boasted two remarkable statistics: “Gort had two statistics that were interesting to me. It was the town worst hit by austerity and at one time over half of its population was Brazilian.
“Even though the town has less than 3,000 people in it so it’s not a lot of people but for a small town it’s a big deal so those two things together were really interesting to me.
“I wanted to look at this issue of home and new people coming to live in Ireland and making Ireland their home as well so it was all of these things coming together and some of those themes are still there as well.
“It’s entertaining I hope also but it’s meant to spark discussion as well.”
What’s next? Could we see that fiction film that was the genesis of the whole idea? “I’ve kind of taken it off the shelf and tinkered with it and looked at it again.
“Recently I turned it into a short story because it’s still with me somehow.
“Maybe if my story gets published someone else might make it or maybe I will, I don’t know.
“It’s called The Miracle of Colonel Sanders’ Tears.”
Town of Strangers is in cinemas now, released by New Wave Films.