Ó Searcaigh not alone in having questions to answer

 

OPINION:Neasa Ní Chianáin's film about the poet suggests she too can be accused of misusing power, writes Dermod Moore.

Neasa Ní Chianáin's film, Fairytale of Kathmandu, is a response to her own disappointment that her hero, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, has feet of clay. She has toppled her once-revered icon from his pedestal, using her documentary to expose and decommission his weapon of mass destruction.

The collateral damage that has been caused, however, is inestimable, leaving chaos and confusion in its wake, and a bitter polarisation. And truth, sadly, has been the first casualty in this war between the two former friends.

Her lamentable failure to enquire closer into the relationships he had with the young men in Kathmandu, while he was still in situ, means that we, as viewers, are not able to answer some crucial questions.

Firstly, roughly what proportion of those men in his coterie has he had sex with? This goes to the heart of his motives for being there in the first place - was he a sex tourist, masquerading as a philanthropist? Or was he, as he and his friends claim passionately, a philanthropist who occasionally had consensual sex?

Secondly, we need to establish whether or not his "legendary" generosity was conditional on having sex with him. Was it generally understood among his friends that "boogie-ing" was how to please him, in order to reap financial reward?

Thirdly, concerning those who did have sex with him, what long-lasting effect did their relationship with him have?

And, lastly, what understanding does Ó Searcaigh have about their motives for having sex, never mind his?

The film purports to answer the third question in its denouement, the series of interviews with the boys. One of them, Nareng, the recipient of the bicycle, whose face and story is one of the most evocative in Fairytale, said sadly about Ó Searcaigh, "he bought myself". Now, Nareng, a 20-year-old college student, confidently denies victimhood, and bravely admits to a continued physical relationship with his "best friend".

In a video recorded a few weeks ago, he protests that, immediately prior to his interview with Ní Chianáin, he was told by Ramesh (the hotel manager whose role in this collective fall from Eden seems to be more than that of a catalyst) that he had left the country, that he was a bad man, and that he never kept in touch with the boys he met. Reeling from the news, feeling that he was "on the edge of a blade", he spoke movingly of how used he felt to Ní Chianáin.

Nareng and others have protested that they signed no release forms, and have withdrawn their consent to participate in the film. They believe Ní Chianáin has betrayed their trust.

Her response: "The film is a biographical picture of one man, and as such release forms of the peripheral subjects would not be expected." The film's central premise, however, is that she encountered the unexpected: the peripheral characters became, dramatically, the central focus of the film, as witnesses.

In such a delicate situation, surely gaining informed consent is vital? Witnesses need protection. Witnesses need to know their rights, including the right not to incriminate themselves, or shame themselves and their families. If they protest afterwards, and withdraw their consent, they must be displaying classic symptoms of denial: abused children often protest that they love their abuser.

When Ó Searcaigh apologised in a statement for offending anyone with his "gay lifestyle and relationships", I imagine he was referring to cruising. Largely alien to women's experience, it is obviously not to Ó Searcaigh, who gave us the phrase ag crúsáil.

Dionysian and transgressive, it is sex outside of relationship, the hunt for mutual pleasure, perhaps even mutual exploitation. A camaraderie and sense of fair play between players in this male "sport" of sex is common, although risk itself is part of the attraction. It is not a "gay" phenomenon, men of all ages and orientations do it, whether partnered or not.

Whether one views this as a sad, lonely, addictive acting out of shame and a desperate flight from the perils of intimacy, or a pleasurable way to enjoy oneself, get one's kicks with no strings attached, and meet new people and make new friends, depends on how we view sex itself.

A man who cruises for sex with consenting adults is not a monster or an abuser per se. He is only accountable to those with whom he has relationships. The network of friends and acquaintances he makes along the way may be no better or worse than any other kind.

If an older man is at the centre of a group such as this, which is often the case, the key question for me is how the young men feel about him.

However, cruising in a poor country as a rich westerner, even one with such a sophisticated culture as Nepal's, throws up all sorts of fraught ethical and emotional questions; not because of the sex, but because of the money, and the power and responsibility attached to it.

"A man doesn't become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall," said Aristotle. Until Ó Searcaigh understands the boundaries he has transgressed, and there is no sign yet that he does, he will fail to understand the reason his friend became his nemesis, and why she has seemingly spent the last two years engineering his downfall.

This is not to say that he then necessarily has to apologise to anyone, other than those he has hurt. Until the questions posed above are answered, it is impossible for us to evaluate fairly his character as a man, or the effects of his actions.

The core issue in the film is the exercising of power in inappropriate ways to gratify one's own desires.

But it can also be said that Ní Chianáin herself is guilty of the same thing, in the manner in which she has made her accusations. If one points a finger, so vehemently and so publicly, one must brace oneself for a thousand fingers to come pointing back.

Dermod Mooreis a columnist with Hot Press