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Older Than Ireland
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by Jay Seaver

"A good excuse for an enjoyable documentary."
4 stars

There are several events that can function as the birth of the Republic of Ireland, but the Easter Declaration of 24 April 1916 is the most recognized, and that gives director Alex Fegan, if nothing else, a great title for a film about his country's centenarians. It is exactly what one might expect - a fond look at folks who have seen both a lot of history and a lot of everyday life - and nicely put together.

To a certain extent, living that long is a matter of chance, underlined by how the first person Fegan shows, 103-year-old Bessie Nolan of Dublin, is smoking a cigarette, because sometimes there's just no predicting what will get a person past the century mark. She's the first of about thirty people that will be introduced in about 80 minutes, and in some ways, that makes Fegan's work as the film's editor one of the most impressive things about it: He rarely, if ever, has more than one of his subjects on-screen at any given time, which means that each person gets about three minutes, and yet nobody seems just pop up for barely the time needed to display their name on-screen and disappear; there's enough time to make an impression.

That Fegan doesn't show these men and women discussing what they have seen or what their lives are like appears to be a very deliberate choice (especially given one of the things pointed out during the credits) - a major recurring theme during the film is that being this elderly is a very lonely experience. They don't necessarily speak about it directly until late in the movie, but when they do, it's easy to remember all the times that they have been shown alone in a room, whether it be in a care facility or in an empty sitting room. There's a tremendous sadness to a birthday party Fagen shows; there may be a three-generation gap between the fairly indifferent guest of honor and most of the people there.

That's not the only feeling that comes through, happily; there's a broad range of health and experience put on screen. Fegan's skill as an editor comes into play again as he finds common threads in different people's stories - for instance, new shoes, school, and games seem entwined for many of those interviewed, so Fegan connects them, making for a strong sequence rather than three smaller ones. He does this several times, interspersing them with things that contrast. Sometimes it's only a matter of degree - shopping excursions show some of these people as more spry than folks decades their junior, but even other relatively independent elders have to admit that they're slowed down as they can only creep forward on foot.

The folks Fegan talks to may, on the average, be doing better than the average person who has passed a hundred - this is the sort of documentary film where sincere assurances are likely made that the subjects will not be embarrassed, although some may figure that it's not like they'll have to live with that very long, and as a result, the group often gives the impression of being lively souls, even if their expression of it happens in slow motion. They've got plenty of good stories, often in parallel but sometimes having interesting distinctions - the daughter of an English lieutenant tells different stories than the folks who supported the IRA, for instance - and the tales of things from the Black & Tan period to the "American Wakes" as many emigrated mid-century should be intriguing whether the viewer is non-Irish, much younger, or both.

Given the depth of experience of people who have lived this long and the change that this particular last century has brought, this sort of film could be made in many places and still have the raw materials to be a good watch. Whether it would be put together so well is a different question, and that's a big part of why watching this one is such a pleasant experience even in its more melancholy moments.

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originally posted: 05/30/16 08:05:20
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Directed by
  Alex Fegan

Written by
  Alex Fegan


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