Thursday, July 10th, I went to one of the premiering films of the 26th Galway Film Fleadh 2014 festival at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway. The Film Fleadh is a local cultural event that has been running for 26 consecutive years. It’s a festival that encourages local film makers to submit their films to the screening selection of the year, and, afterwards perhaps receive rewards for their work. The film that I went to see was The Stranger directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin. She is also the director of Frank Ned & Busy Lizzie, winner of Best Feature Documentary, Celtic Film Festival 2004 and Fairytale of Kathmandu world premiere at IDFA in Amsterdam, the largest documentary festival in the world in 2007, and then played 30 international Festivals and won 3 Best Documentary and Best Director awards.
The Stranger is a documentary that tells the story of Neal MacGregor, an English artist, from Kensington, England. MacGregor was part of the 1960’s generation, but he later became a recluse and a hermit, who died alone at the age of 43, in a stone shed on Inishbofin, County Donegal, Ireland, 1990. The film explores the personal and social circumstances that led to MacGregor’s seclusion on Inishbofin. According to the documentary, MacGregor is portrayed as someone whom didn’t quite fit into the community where he lived. He is described in his early years as being irreverent, and visionary; these characteristics come through in his mystic philosophies and hand-crafted art. The art that he left behind is exemplary of his obsessive activity and creative nature. This instinct to create is evident in the multiplicity of crafts that he gave to his friends, family, and community members. Yet, the simplistic beauty of the work that MacGregor left behind is juxtaposed to the emptiness of spirit and confusion that he felt, that is seen in his many diary entries. This loneliness led him to live a simple life, in the last eight years of his life, in a shed without water, electricity, or heating. During his last years, MacGregor wrote a mystical statement that captures the psychosis of the Irish people of being stuck and not being able to move forward in their lives. This theme of being stuck is also found in the works of the Irish playwrights of the twentieth century like: Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh, and Conor McPherson. MacGregor’s mystical statemen that I have paraphrased is as follows:
…if you ever find yourself in a moment of complete understanding of the circumstances that have led you to your now: all that is in flux around you will become still. Your past, present, and future will converge in a single moment and all the confusion of your existence will become clear. In this moment of clarity, you will feel empowered to move ahead into a better future and thus make peace with your past. But that clarity that you have received from the “universal energy force” will dissipate in the blink of an eye. And you will be at a loss wanting to find again what you have experienced, therefore, never again being able to capture that understanding, thus you are trapped in your life…knowing that you knew the answer to everything, but not being able to answer why you knew it.
That is the conundrum of human existence: to know what you have known and will know, but not being able to move ahead. With the strength that that knowledge had given you, you will be forever in a state of weakness — frozen in time — immovable, but all-knowing. Time passes, but you will not be able to understand why, or for that matter, be able to capture the moment of happiness that you are experiencing in your life. Knowing that fact of weakness: is the ultimate pain, and therefore pain is the essence of your existence.
The Stranger, was an interesting and philosophical film and at the end of the premier I met Neasa Ní Chianáin and Stuart MacGregor, Neal MacGregor’s brother, and asked for a photo. While we were prepping for the photo shot, I asked Stuart MacGregor what he thought of the film and he said that it was “a portrait of his brother that preserved him (Neal) for years to come and gave him (Stuart) a glimpse of his brother’s life that allowed him to come to an understanding of his brother’s mind and come to accept him for who he was.” This portrait of Neal MacGregor was possible due to the work of the director who used the diaries, his art, the stories of his friends and family before seclusion, and the hearsay of the natives of Inihsbofin without further analysis or exposition. Stuart MacGregor’s closing statement about the film was that the film gave him something material to hold on to in memory of his brother, Neil, since it is a surviving portrait –there are few photos of Neal during his lifetime.