In our January issue, we ran a piece entitled ‘This Island Life’ by Rachel Donnelly and Al Higgins that took an extended look at the ongoing challenges to life and self-sustainability on the islands of Inishbofin and Inishturk, and the clashes between a traditional mode of survival and contemporary logistical and legislative realities. Coincidentally, producer Jason Gaffney and director Dominic De Vere had been exploring similar material in a very different medium. Set around the Cape Clear Island off the South West coast of County Cork, Aonrú is a lyrically shot, 30 minute short film that explores the landscape and the voices of another island life that echoes many of themes explored in these pages. We spoke with Jason and Dominic about Aonrú’s genesis and where that story they found is being taken to.
What is your background as a filmmaker Jason?
Jason: Although Aonrú is my debut as a filmmaker I have been working on features and shorts, as junior producer, since 2010. While I was working in the UK, I worked on Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, while I completed my MA in Film Studies at Kingston University, London. I also worked on numerous shorts and music videos produced at Camberwell Studios and Channel 5. It was through this work I developed my skills and experience producing. Rather than rush into my first project I wanted to ensure I knew the process and industry inside-out. Then in 2012 I gave the green light for Aonrú which I have been working on since then.
Are Lost Productions and Jason Gaffney one and the same or are there a few of you working together regularly?
J: Lost Productions was established in 2013 by myself through the development and production of Aonrú. However – the company is currently managed by myself and my partner Niamh Fairley. Based on positive feedback we’ve gotten, we’ve plans to expand the company towards producing film content in Ireland. It’s an exciting time to be part of the business.
Does Cape Clear Island face the same challenges as Inishbofin and Inishturk that were discussed the ‘This Island Life’ article that we published in January, where the people are at an uncertain point over the viability of their self-sustainability?
J: Yes it does. The island’s decline in industry and population reflects the trend along the Irish coast including what is being experienced on Inishbofin and Inishturk. That particular article referenced Inishshark, Inishbofin’s nearest neighbour, that became depopulated in 1961 and now serves as a ghostly reminder of the dangers that could impact all islands, including Cape Clear. The people see themselves as being isolated from contemporary Ireland and marginalised in terms of financial support, employment and sustainable initiatives that would guarantee their future. The island is now fully dependent on farming and tourism. However these industries alone will prove challenging in guaranteeing a sustainable and long term future for the islands inhabitants. You need to remember: Cape Clear is their home. It’s where they were born and raised. It’s where their parents and ancestors were born and raised. The challenges they face are real and alarming. No-one should be forced to leave their home but unless the situation changes – life on Cape Clear will become unsustainable.
The film avoids too much specificity with reference to legislative problems – more hints at ‘them against the world’ setting. Is their situation terminal or is there some hope? One of the voices mentions the cyclicality of the problem, the boom and bust.
J: The reason the film is not specific lies more with the style used by Dominic as a filmmaker. This was a conscious decision that forces the audience to investigate what is happening on screen rather than be led through words and explanation.
As discussed previously tourism is a major source of income for many of the islanders, and this is an area where hope exists. The problem right now is that the harbour is not developed enough to allow visiting boats or yachts berth for a long period of time. This means that tourists coming from the sea cannot stay on Cape Clear. The underdeveloped harbour also prevents a larger number of people investing in the fishing industry and therefore gaining a living from the surrounding seas. The reference to cyclicality is pertinent. In the late 18th century the island experienced huge loss of life through famine, local industries have always struggled due to their geographic location, children must leave the island for secondary education, and yet the community endures. The people of the island have experienced loss, struggle and uncertainty and yet they remain hopeful. With Aonrú we wanted to portray their resolve.
You’ve worked with some well-known names (including Annie Atkins) on the project – how did that come about? How many people worked on it altogether?
J: I worked with the Irish Film and Television Network for two years following my return to Dublin. My role involved organising industry events and liaising regularly with industry professionals working in film, so that’s where I established a strong network of contacts that served me well in terms of generating advice, finance, support and awareness. While in IFTN, I interviewed Annie Atkins for a profile article on the website. Since then I have been a great admirer of her work and ensured we kept in touch in the hope that we could someday work together. In the post-production phase I decided to set up a meeting with Annie so that we could discuss the project and she was instantly captured by the subject matter and the importance of communicating this story to a wider audience. Annie is an extremely inventive and passionate individual and done an amazing job at translating the style, form and ‘feel’ of Aonrú to the graphic design of the film poster. I wasn’t surprised when Annie won the Oscar for Grand Budapest Hotel and believe she will win many more awards in the future.
Sound recording on the film was carried out by Danny Crowley who has worked with Steve McQueen and is currently on Game of Thrones, and then our sound edit was engineered by Leon O’Neill who is a regular with RTÉ and came highly recommended (with good reason) by many producers I know.
Most important of all was Dominic de Vere. Dom is an award-winning director in the UK whose work is well known for its distinctive style and craft. Dom is a visionary and has the rare ability to elevate the most mundane setting to something truly unique. I consider myself blessed to have worked with Dom on Aonrú as I believe it’s a matter of time before I can no longer afford his talent! Each member of the production brought experience, expertise and class. However Dom had the job of blending these elements together to tell the story in an engaging and striking way. He exceeded his role and created a gorgeous film.
The common strand that kept everyone’s work so in-tune was a genuine love for the story while, as producer, I provided complete creative freedom so everyone could express themselves.
The press release suggest this is a very unconventional documentary, and the trailer itself is quite abstract and less linear, moving from the underwater shots to (what I assume are) aerial drone shots. What influenced the style of the documentary?
Dominic: The biggest influence on the style of the film was probably technology, especially in terms of the footage from the trailer. Our main camera was a Canon C300 but we also had a Sony DSLR for time-lapse footage, a GoPro for the underwater scenes and a drone carrying a small digital camera for the aerial photography, and very fortunately on the day of the basking shark arriving in the harbour. Alongside the digital footage we managed to get hold of some archive material, shot back in the ’50s and ’60s on the island. This technological mix allowed us to edit the film from an interesting ‘soup’ of footage. I was very keen for the film to jump between the different styles that these cameras enables one to do.
Beyond the influence of technology, the films I had been watching prior to leaving the UK were by Jean Rouch, Petter Mettler and James Benning and whilst I can only dream of making films as engaging as those made by these filmmakers, their influence in terms of pacing, camera and voiceover comes through fairly strongly. My background is experimental film rather than documentary, this is probably the strongest influence on the film itself and why it might not be seen as conventional when considering ‘traditional’ documentary filmmaking.
How did you come to this project and to investigating the life and the fishing culture of Cape Clear Island? Did you find Conor O’Drisceoil before you started making the film, or did his ‘starring role’ just emerge as you spoke with him?
D: Jason had been down to Cape Clear quite a few times before we arrived to shoot so knew Conor fairly well. The initial idea had been to film Conor at sea for a few days but with his boat being damaged by the winter storms we couldn’t do this. During our first couple of days on the island, Conor was packing up his fishing gear to sell, it seemed a rather appropriate image for the film so we documented this process.
J: When I returned from the UK I was offered an array of independent projects to produce, so, in order to give these projects the time and consideration they deserved, I decided to take a weekend vacation on Cape Clear Island. While staying on the island I was introduced to Conor O’Drisceoil who informed me that he was the last remaining fisherman on the island. He explained that the fishing industry has been decimated due to a number of factors including; the costs of fuel, EU regulations, competition with foreign imports and mass emigration from the island. The sincerity and anguish with which Conor explained his situation forced me to forget the other projects and to focus on getting this story to a wider audience. That is how Aonrú was created.
What plans do you have for the film? When will it be screened in Dublin?
J: When we started this project it was with the aim of ensuring the islanders’ collective voices were heard by as many people as possible. So I’ll be promoting the film on the worldwide festival circuit from May 2015 for about six to eight months with screenings at festivals throughout North America, Europe, the UK and Ireland. The film will premiere over here in the Irish Film Institute on Saturday 27th June, which will play host to the film’s stakeholders, Irish media as well as industry professionals.
What other future projects are you working on?
J: I am delighted to say that we have received contact from many filmmakers throughout the country with scripts and ideas for future projects. With Aonrú’s festival run set to last until the end of the year, we’ll take our time in considering what is next. However, I will be working alongside Dom on The Making of Napoleon, which is a documentary based on St Helena, a British Overseas Territory, about Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon.
Aonrú premieres in Dublin at the IFI on Saturday 27th June. For more information on Jason and Dominic’s various projects, see facebook.com/AonruDoc and themakingofnapoleon.co.uk
Words: Ian Lamont
Images: Lost Productions