You can call me Alan
It hardly seems possible, but 10 years have passed since film-maker Alan Gilsenan had his moment as an angry young man. The irony remains that even at the time while many condemned what they saw as the bleakness of his documentary The Road To God Knows Where, Gilsenan did not consider it a negative view of Ireland. "The IDA was outraged. You have to remember that that was pre-Celtic Tiger and young Irish people were just upping and going. There wasn't much to keep them here. I didn't make the film to make that point, it was just supposed to be my view of Ireland, how I as a young person felt about it, but it was seen as some kind of antieverything thing."
While collecting his Jacobs Award, for the film which had been commissioned by Channel 4, he commented on the fact that the then Fianna Fail government had killed off the Film Board. It was not said to provoke - "it just seemed ironic, that was all." But for the reaction it excited, Gilsenan may has well have launched into a passionate protest.
In 1987 he directed Stolen From The Silence, the first documentary interviewing AIDS patients. Now with his first full-length "film fiction", All Souls Day - premiered recently at this year's Cork Film Festival - many of the themes and motifs which have featured in his documentary work to date have come together in his most personal film. Slow, intense, deliberately fragmented, it is the story of a young girl's schizophrenic decline into a chaotic hell of elation and aggressive despair. Is she a suicide or was she murdered by her bewildered lover? - the facts are irrelevant.
Gilsenan is interested in the apparent distortions of memory, allied to the fact that for him, "memories and distortion tend to be more truthful than the things presented with rigid clarity". That nothing is what it appears to be is vital to his new film.
Of it he says: "I haven't a clue as to what All Souls Day is about, I do know I wanted to make it, it was in my head for a long time. I wrote it about seven years ago." Shot mainly on Super 8mm, the 78-minute film cost £60 million to make. The Arts Council provided £20 million and Gilsenan asked the Film Board and RTE to match that figure. They did.
He sits in a small tea-shop in Enniskerry. Fair hair cut short, he has an athlete's cleanliness. Dressed in casual clothes, Gilsenan is sporty rather than trendy; there are no traces of the intense, brooding defiance associated with many practitioners of the arts. Nor is he angry. Most of all he doesn't whine about money or give the impression he believes Arts Council grants are his by divine right. Instead, he looks as if he had been out running that morning.
A careful, pleasant, civilised character, he is neither boy wonder nor rebel. Alan Gilsenan, the sort of man capable of making most mothers weep joyfully should a daughter bring him home, is unaffected and ordinary, a bit vague, and though a good talker, is still not quite used to be speaking about himself.
When describing his childhood it seems to filter through a distant, sepia-coloured past. "I was born in the country, in Meath. We lived in Crossakeel," a village about midway between Oldcastle and Kells. It is presented not as an aside but as an important fact - Gilsenan cherishes this link to another Ireland.
"My father farmed into his 50s, then we moved to Dublin 4. But I can say I had a country childhood. We had this big rambling house on Raglan Road, but it was like being in the countryside. My father preferred to buy eggs from the Egg Man in the lane, instead of going to the supermarket." Matt Gilsenan exchanged a life of mixed farming for work as an official with the Turf Club.
Born in August 1962, Alan is the younger of two children. His sister Nancy is five years older and currently studying in Edinburgh. "As a child I always loved playing on my own, making up stories and little plays. I always liked the imaginary life. It was like being an only child. When you're our age, five years is nothing but when you're small, it's a huge gap, so my sister seemed to be part of another generation. My parents belonged more to the generation of a lot of my friends' grandparents." His mother, Isabel, died in June; his father three years earlier.
"Basically, I'm fairly solitary. I suppose that's why I liked athletics." The image I still have of Gilsenan is as a sprinter, wearing a Crusaders club track suit and warming up, doing strides along the back straight of the Belfield track. Having played rugby, at both second row and back row, throughout secondary school, he decided in sixth year to concentrate on athletics. "I had juggled the two, rugby in the winter, running in the summer, but then I decided to drop rugby."
As an athlete he was meticulous, deliberate and won the Leinster schools senior 400 metres in 1979. Even when training, his gear always seemed cleaner than everyone else's. His spikes always looked new. His father often stood at the track side, an interested observer. There has always been an air of privilege about Gilsenan, of being protected. He seems surprised.
"Well I was very secure. I had a very happy childhood. It's funny though the way you can say things at times. I remember once being asked in an interview if I had had a happy childhood - a fair question, I mean look at the crazy stuff in my films - and I said `quite' I don't know why but it came out as `quite.' When my mother read it, she was shocked. `What does this mean,' she said, `quite happy?' She was horrified. So I should say now, `Yes, I had a very happy childhood.' I really did."
Would he like to have children? "I'd like children but no, they don't feature among my plans at the moment." He lives with writer Marsha Hunt in Roundwood, Co Wicklow.
St Conleth's school in Ballsbridge gave him a lot. "I was reasonably academic and had an inspired and inspirational run of English and history teachers. It's a great school. Kevin Kelleher was the headmaster and he was a sort of mythic figure. He had been an international rugby referee. He was very famous and had been the first ref to send off an international player - or was it two? - in an international. I forget who they were, but while it's no big deal now to send off players, then it was, international rugby players were not sent off."
Officiating over Scotland versus New Zealand at Murrayfield in 1967, Kelleher ordered the All Black forward, the now legendary second row giant Colin Meads, off the pitch. The story reverberated throughout the international rugby community as Meads was the first player to be so reprimanded since 1925. Thirty years almost to the week have since passed - how rugby has changed.
"Conleth's was small, too small for cliques. You know in bigger places the way the rugby players only talk to rugby players and the sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll crowd stick to themselves and the studious people are a race apart - that didn't happen in Conleth's. We hadn't enough to form cliques."
At school he was already interested in drama. "We didn't have drama as such but I was a drama snob at an early age - my father used to take me to plays, local dramas and pantomime. I saw The Desert Song in Kells Town Hall. He also loved light opera, and brought me with him to R&R productions."
Theatre, initially, was far more important to him than film. "I wasn't interested. Even though I already knew when I was still at school that what I wanted to do was to write and direct, I was never that interested in movies, unless I was dragged along. I know when you see film directors being interviewed they always say things like `From the time I was 13 I used to dodge school and hide in the local cinema', but that wasn't me. Sure I saw things like Mary Poppins and The Sound Of Music, but I was no film buff."
At Trinity he studied English and sociology. His interest in drama soon surfaced. "I remember sitting up all night to write my first film. The first thing that struck me was that I didn't know what to do." He wrote it and it became Sheila, which several observers have seen as the source for All Souls Day.
"I directed Beckett's Eh Joe when I was at college, Tom Hickey and Siobhan McKenna were in it, yet I suppose I'm prouder of Sheila. I don't know." Film supplanted theatre, he admits to having become quite disillusioned with theatre. "I directed quite a lot of theatre, but. . ." he pauses, "well, to be honest I think Irish theatre is quite dull, even boring. There are too many things you have to consider. One great thing about film is that you can plough your own furrow."
He is also aware of the difficulty of casting. While many currently working in theatre are worried about the way television and cinema are luring performers away from the stage, Gilsenan is more concerned with the "usual suspects" factor which means most productions are using the same actors.
"Of course I know actors have to work, but it is difficult using the same people. Actors need to preserve some mystery. When an actor becomes too familiar, there's no mystery left." Aware of its contentiousness, he shrugs. However, he did call upon one of the most familiar faces in Ireland by casting actor Tom Hickey as the all-seeing witness figure in All Souls Day: "I think he is a great actor, from when I first directed him in Eh Joe. He has taught me more about acting than anyone else."
Mentor figures have never particularly appealed to the self-contained Gilsenan. "No, I'm not a great one for mentors, but I would point to Tom and also Martin Duffy who has taught me so much about editing." Smiling to himself he says: "When I started out I knew nothing. I'm not trained and am completely self-taught, Martin taught me everything. I remember wondering why he kept referring to an `egg cutter', I had this mental image of an egg slicer being used to cut the film." Eventually, he discovered Duffy was using a neg cutter.
In 1986 Gilsenan formed Yellow Asylum Films. "It was not to make money, but rather as a way of preserving my freedom. I chose the name because an asylum means a madhouse as well a place of safety." Catholicism, its images and motifs as well as church music have often featured in his work. "Catholicism is important in Ireland, as is nationalism. My experience of Catholicism is a positive one. I can remember my father taking me to 7 o'clock Mass - he was very gentle, deeply religious . . in my memory, he always seemed very tall and I always had to run to keep up with him. . . " he says thoughtfully.
"I have always been drawn to the images, the rituals of Catholicism. You know I was an altar boy at Haddington Road Church for years?" In his quiet, determined way, Gilsenan continues: "I have a real difficulty with our supposedly modern Ireland and what this means. People think they can just walk away from Catholicism, nationalism, ruralism - is that a word? But you can't just drop these things. Something is lost in the transition. These are things which are essential to making Ireland what it is. I have no problem, I never had any problem with Catholicism. Had I children, I would hope they'd go to Mass." Does he attend church? Embarrassed laugh, "Well. . . no." Fade out.
Recovery is quick though. "People often say to me `your films are kind of tormented and angst-ridden'. I mean, how can you answer something like that?" he says half laughing, half in earnest. "But I suppose they are self-revelatory, most things are. The roots of all film-making has to come from yourself."
Documentary film-making has been vital for Gilsenan. "I regarded all of my work so far as apprentice pieces. Documentary is a great teacher," and he agrees that social history has tended to undercut most of his work. "If you're looking at society, I think it's inevitable that it's going to have some kind of social historical relevance."
Does he feel straitjacketed by documentary? "No, because there is room to do both and if I want to do a film fiction, I know I can." Prophet Songs was screened in 1990. It follows several priests through a crisis which leads them to leave the priesthood. "I think the important point is that the priests had not left the church, they had rejected the priesthood. It wasn't about a loss of faith. I like to think of it as a religious film."
Between Heaven And Woolworths, a study of the Irish storytelling tradition, followed in 1992. Speaking of Irish writing, Gilsenan praises Eugene McCabe and Tom Murphy: "I think when history is being written, Tom Murphy will be regarded as Ireland's greatest 20th-century playwright." Gilsenan still runs. "Last winter I ran on our club team, Crusaders, and we won a national indoor relay title, 4 by 200 metres. I put the medal in the jar I keep my other medals in. I noticed one from 1981, I got a shock. I thought `Hmm, I'm getting a bit old for this'. It's hard make the time. I enjoy doing intervals and so on. I love running, but you can only say that to people who do run and understand." He enjoys being with sports people. "Like I said, I'm not a film buff, I don't want to spend all my time discussing European cinema. I like doing other things. It also keeps you mentally fresh." Another of his interests is photography, usually in black and white.
"I'm happiest behind a camera. I know I'm a visual person and you know what it's like. You can be driving along in the car and you see something that you know would make a great picture. I like landscapes. Hey quick, stop the car. But it's important to be able to switch off."
So far Ireland has been his main subject - "I've been exploring different aspects of Irish life" - but in 1994 he was approached by Channel 4 to make a series. God Bless America was the result. The six programmes featured six US writers, including Gore Vidal, Neil Simon, Garrison Keillor and Patricia Cornwall. The concept was to have the writers speaking not about their work, but about American cities.
"I went to it fairly open minded. I had always been pretty cynical about America, I was never in love with the American Dream." In fact, he stresses his experience of Irish-Americans had left him wary. "But making the series opened my eyes. My perceptions changed. I've grown to really like the place." Hardly surprisingly, Heart Of Stone, Gore Vidal's Washington, is superb. Sharp, brilliant, viciously funny, Vidal the consummate performer appears to be having a good time. Most of all though, Gilsenan's film captures the depth of Vidal's love for his country.
While some film-makers would seem to suggest that working in grainy Super 8mm is a phase to be left behind on moving on to 35mm, he thinks otherwise. "I think the very clarity, that pristine quality of 35mm is a bit of a lie, a distortion. It's also `glamorous.' It's back to what I said about the distortion of memory being more truthful." Super 8mm is also particularly suited to Gilsenan's cryptic style, strong images - faces and grave stones - with an often heavy rock soundtrack.
As a boy he was told he needed glasses. "It was the first I knew of it. But when I put the glasses on, I said `yes everything is that bit clearer'. But I think 20/20 vision is a lie. Super 8mm gives a more poetic effect." It also has the effect of making the nudity hazier, almost dream-like. All Souls Day, in common with its maker, moves between the exact and vague. The film is both half-remembered memory and human tragedy. Determined never to be pushed into commercial film-making, he agrees his film is certainly art house. "Art house enough to be screened in the Savoy One toilet."
He says he would feel confident enough to be making a $60-million motion picture "but I would also happily work on a five-minute long experimental. I think it's a human instinct to want to box people. Whatever film I'm making is the one I want to make today."
All Souls Day will be released in Dublin in the spring.