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Thursday 17 October 2019

'It's an odd experience to play yourself' - Ailbhe Griffith on 'The Meeting' film about her encounter with man who sexually assaulted her

Alan Gilsenan's new film 'The Meeting' is based on a real-life encounter between Ailbhe Griffith and the man who sexually assaulted her. She agreed to take on the role herself in order to show the power of restorative justice

Clarity: The stereotype of the quaking rape victim who will ever-after be terrified is subverted by Ailbhe in The Meeting. Picture: Damien Eagers
Clarity: The stereotype of the quaking rape victim who will ever-after be terrified is subverted by Ailbhe in The Meeting. Picture: Damien Eagers
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

A film about the aftermath of a sex attack might not sound uplifting, but somehow The Meeting is. Alan Gilsenan's drama is remarkable in many ways, and not just because it's based closely on a true story and explores the possibilities of restorative justice: in it, the victim of the actual assault plays herself. Not that Ailbhe Griffith would ever describe herself as a victim.

In the summer of 2005, as she was walking home from a suburban bus stop after a late night in work, a stranger set upon her, beating, biting and viciously sexually assaulting her during a lengthy ordeal: at one point, Ailbhe wondered if she was going to die.

He was caught, and on the eve of his trial pleaded guilty. Ailbhe made a victim impact statement which was widely reported: the man was given a hefty sentence. She had got what many victims of sexual assault never receive: justice. But somehow, that rang hollow, and didn't equate to closure. Ailbhe wanted more.

She decided she wanted to confront her attacker, and with the help of restorative justice campaigner Marie Keenan, it eventually happened. The Meeting recreates that occasion, an event simultaneously surreal and banal (there is tea and biscuits), but charged with the elusive possibility of healing and redemption.

Playing oneself at one of the most intense moments in your life must have been a very strange experience. How did Ailbhe become involved in the film?

"It was through Marie, really. Alan and the producer, Tomás Hardiman, found out about restorative justice and wanted to hear more, so they met Marie and she told them about a couple of different stories. One of them was mine, and in 2016 I met them, and we discussed my experience, and I think after that they just drove away and felt that this was the film to make.

"Then, sometime in 2017, just as they were about to start shooting, I met up with Alan and he said to me, what would you think about playing yourself? The thought had never crossed my mind, but once he said it, my gut instinct was yeah, that could be really interesting, and you know instinctively I felt that I could bring the authenticity to the film, because the words that you're hearing are my words, and I was concerned as well that the power of restorative justice wouldn't come through if it was just somebody acting as that person. So I said yes."

Ailbhe had, she tells me with a laugh, never acted in anything before in her life, but got around that by constantly reminding herself that the person she was playing was her.

"Alan was very reassuring, and I felt that as I'm going in there and saying pretty much what I said at that time, it was just a question of going back and trying to remember what that felt like exactly and then re-enacting it, you know."

Playing herself or not, Ailbhe does an exceptional job, bringing stillness and poise to a portrayal that feels compellingly real.

"I literally just tried to be myself," she says, "and one of the people involved in making the film said it's not a performance, you're not performing as an actress. I was always concerned with that because I felt like there might be stereotypes about people who've had my type of experience, and that it would be a disservice to the restorative justice cause if it was done in some sort of weepy way."

That stereotype, of the quaking, shattered rape victim who will ever-after be terrified of the world, is subverted by Ailbhe in The Meeting: the screen version of herself seems a little overwhelmed when she first enters the room, but soon dictates the course of the conversation with her clarity, honesty and articulacy, which forces her attacker (brilliantly played by Terry O'Neill) to reveal something of himself.

"It was an odd feeling, of course, playing yourself and recreating this weird experience. But I was there because I believed in the power of restorative justice. Also, I was re-enacting an amazing day in my life, a very good day, a day I'll never forget, and the memory of which has basically replaced a bad memory for me. In that room you see someone that originally had a feeling of being disempowered, angry, sad, turn into someone who feels empowered, and was able to let go of anger. So you kind of see humanity restored on both sides, I think."

Ailbhe was just 21, a student with a part-time bar job, when the attack happened. "Afterwards", she tells me, "I was in a very traumatised state, but being who I am, I kind of just continued on. I was taking a course in college that year, I went ahead and did it, it was difficult, but I just kind of kept going on."

The attacker's conviction, she says, did help her in a way. "I would say it opened a door towards healing, and got me over this sense that I needed some external acknowledgement that wrong had been done to me, I definitely got that, and I would always say absolutely go through the criminal justice system, however difficult it is. But then there was all the emotional, psychological, spiritual trauma, and where does that go? It's not healed by this person being in prison. So that stayed with me, and I dealt with it as best I could, but I would always come back to this idea of confronting him."

She met Marie Keenan by "sheer luck". "I have a sister who would have known her through courses she took in UCD, and I was ranting on one day, about how I wanted to confront him and my sister said that she'd seen a restorative justice video in Marie Keenan's class, and suggested contacting her.

"So I did, expecting her to explain to me why it wasn't a good idea, but instead she said, let's do it, let's meet him, and I was like, oh! From the point that I walked into Marie's room, it was probably about a year and a half, and it was a difficult thing to make happen, because people don't understand restorative justice yet, they don't understand the benefits."

The meeting itself, when it finally came, was "overwhelming, surreal".

"In the film, before we shot that entrance scene, I tried to remember what it was like to walk into that room, and yeah you can't even breathe, you're just so overwhelmed by it, you know. When I initially walked in and saw him, it was almost like this very normal smile of recognition: it all seemed so normal, but it wasn't. It was strange at first, but then it just developed into an interaction with another person, you know, which is what made it so profound.

"He was presenting the best version of himself that day I think, he was trying to say, look I'm not all bad, I can be a better person, and that's what enabled me to feel compassion for him, because I could see something human in that.

"I don't know if I've ever said this to anybody, but when I went home that night, I was lying down and trying to process it all and I felt this wave of sadness for him come over me. He had damaged his life as well as mine."

After she met him, Ailbhe's perspective shifted dramatically. "Before that, he was a myth to me, the monster who comes out of the darkness and drags you into a bush, but then I got to see that human side of him. It helped me change the memory card, it enabled me to regain control and have a different reaction to the original memory.

"It's never easy to recount your story of course, I mean I did it recently on the television. It's clearly not a pleasant memory, but its power is gone."

The Meeting is showing at selected cinemas now. See themeetingfilm.com for details

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