Wednesday 21 November 2018

Painful to watch, it was just shallow treachery

Last Tuesday night, for the first time, the Irish public were given a chance to see ‘Fairytale of Kathmandu’, a film which polarised the nation before we had even seen it. So was it a portrait of a predatory poet exploiting the innocent young men of Nepal? Or was it the exploitation of a naive poet by the film-makers? Anthony Cronin and Colum Kenny give their verdicts

Like the majority of those who have now seen it, I watched Neasa ni Chianain's film about Cathal O Searcaigh for the first time on Tuesday night. I was not looking forward to seeing it and I was not impressed by RTE's argument that it was in 'the public interest' to show it. I believed -- and I still believe -- that it was no part of my business to know what Cathal O Searcaigh got up to in his private life in Kathmandu.

I am, I think, as addicted to gossip and to knowing what my acquaintances and colleagues get up to as the next person, but I take little pleasure in the sort of publicly drawn-out hanging and quartering, which I had been led to believe this was. I also do not like the adoption of high moral stances about what I consider to be ineradicable aspects of human nature. They may comfort the person taking the stance. They may feed the ego. They may even make a few bob for film-makers and journalists; but otherwise they are pointless.

As for the 'public interest' argument -- what were we who saw the film and were moved to indignation to do in our capacity as citizens of this Republic? Write to the King of Nepal?

Write to Dermot Ahern? Write to the guards to write to the police in Nepal?

In fact it appears the guards had already done that and got the answer that no law, either national or international, has been broken. This is a fact that is worth repeating and it is a fact which scuppers the 'public interest' argument to begin with, unless of course you were asking Nepal to change its laws relating to homosexuality or the age of consent.

When I saw it on Tuesday night the film lived up to my worst forebodings. It was painful to watch O Searcaigh's patterns of behaviour in relation to these young men. But also it was evident quite early that he had been set up. I believe the film was a sting. A seemingly very naive and deluded person, he indubitably believed that the film would be a benevolent, even enthusiastic look at his relationship with Nepal and the good, as he saw it, he was doing there. Since he is also evidently more narcissistic than most he co-operated in the project willingly, even fervently, and with the sort of falsely poetic eloquence of which he is quite a master.

This first part of the film (more

As he strutted in his trusting glory through the streets of Kathmandu, his boys behind him, distributing ice-creams and other favours, or waxed persuasively about the pleasure of giving without hope of return, we knew what was coming -- what indeed was being signalled quite clearly to us. He did not.

Ni Chianain says she only realised what was going on at a late stage in the making of the film, that it came as a shock to her. Since this was during the second period of filming in Nepal she must be an extraordinarily lucky film-maker. Most of what she had already done was right on the mark she was subsequently to aim for. We never saw O Searcaigh in any other context than that of association with beautiful youths and young men. And right from the beginning the least sophisticated and street-wise among us would have known, would indeed have been guided to our knowledge by shots of the same young men looking puzzled or forlorn or betrayed or unhappy, even as they were having their neck ties lovingly straightened or being presented with bicycles.

At the point where it did dawn on her that they were spending nights in his room, the nature of her film and its subject-matter changed, she says. "As a mother I found his behaviour troubling," she tells us. Were the bodies who funded the film forewarned of this change and, if so, when? You do not get money for one kind of film and then produce quite another.

Certainly, Cathal O Searcaigh was not informed nor questioned nor challenged, nor allowed to defend himself while she and he and the young men were in Nepal together and could respond.

After O Searcaigh had left Nepal, she went back and interviewed some of them. Once again we had lingering, feelingful shots of their shamed and sorrowful faces while they denounced their 'friend'. But as with many of her interviews -- most strikingly in the case of the hotel proprietor who, she said, was also denouncing him, but could have been talking about foreign tourists in general -- we were not permitted to hear her questions.

Then she came home to Gortahork and went up the hill to her near neighbour and friend's house. He appeared to be expecting her but not the questions she put to him. One got the impression that he was sitting there, untroubled, perhaps even congratulating himself on the imminent completion of a film about his love for Nepal and his benevolence towards it and its charming young men. But taken unawares like this -- ambushed you might say -- shocked and flustered, his responses were foolish. He gabbled. He incriminated himself before our eyes. He persisted in denying the undeniable. I had the strange impression that his main, his desperate concern was to preserve not his public, but his own self-image: that of the poet who loved the young and was full of loving benevolence towards them; and of course did them no harm. It may be that this self-image contains some "truth", if you can speak of truth in matters like this, matters in which self-deception and denials are so strongly rooted. It might contain as much, at least, as the crudities and caricatures, and the approximations and demonisations, which have been unleashed among us by this self-regarding, shallow and treacherous film.

Colum Kenny: It was a fairytale grounded in solid, basic fact

FAIRYTALE of Kathmandu is, in my opinion, a well-made programme that appears to be fair to those who participated in it. Anyone who thinks otherwise is free to take a complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, or to sue in court. I cannot see on what basis they will win any substantial complaint against the producers.

Senator David Norris has made serious but unsubstantiated allegations about the programme. He also suggested that the Dail become a censor of television. Senator Eoghan Harris has questioned the motives of the programme's director. It is likely to come under microscopic inspection by those who wish to discredit it.

The producers shot 150 hours of footage, from which they fashioned a one-hour documentary. Its director, Neasa ni Chianain, has herself described the story as "complex", and was in no rush to condemn her subject. If anything, this film originally looked like it would be one of those fawning documentaries that are too frequently screened about Irish artists or Irish-language heroes. But that was before the director had an epiphany. She discovered that her hero had feet of clay.

Those who suggest that she should have withdrawn at that stage, abandoning her project because its nature had changed, are not very familiar with the world of media production.

If stories were abandoned whenever they changed direction, there would be few good stories told. The producers were not like the court poets of ancient Ireland, employed to deliver unadulterated praise. Had that been their mission then their programme would have been a deception on Irish viewers.

Fairytale of Kathmandu tells a very engaging story in a balanced and mature manner. No doubt Cathal O Searcaigh is not the only Irish person to take advantage of the resources of poorer countries, but no story can cover everything and his tale was as good a place to raise the question of exploitation as any. The producers gave O Searcaigh an opportunity to respond, and the way in which he responded made it clear that there was no contest about the basic facts.

If any production is put under the very bright light of microscopic inspection, then flaws will be discovered. In this case, much may be made of standard production techniques that, for example, allow shots to be inserted later that are not simultaneous with other shots. The producers may have to account for the fact that they ostensibly did not go back to interview two of the apparently most vulnerable boys to record their relevant comments. The failure to get participants to sign "release forms", specifically granting permission for each interview to be used, was also unwise but by no means unprecedented among programme-makers.

More serious is the accusation that some of those shown but not interviewed on the programme now express satisfaction with their dealings with Cathal O Searcaigh. According to David Norris in the Seanad, one such young man now claims to have been pressurised into giving the answers the film-makers wanted. The young man reportedly says now of the producers, "They make me say things, they twist their questions and make me say Cathal was not a good man."

Norris asks, "Is Narang's voice to be smothered?" But Senator Norris elsewhere blames the producers for endangering those interviewed, because the young men in the film "have been most callously exposed in a dangerously homophobic society and then left to sink or swim on their own". Could this not equally be why some of them are now eager to deny impropriety, and a reason why particular weight may be attached to those young men who dared to go on the record to indicate that they were bruised by their encounters with the Irish poet?

In fact, it was later reported that one interview made to discredit the documentary had been with a person not of the identity suggested. This was described as an "innocent error". O Searcaigh's spokesman resigned last week, apparently frustrated by this occurrence.

The producers have stood on various toes, including those who appear to think that RTE should have smothered the transmission of this. Not that RTE itself is above criticism, particularly for the way in which the topic was handled on radio. But that was not the fault of the producers of Fairytale of Kathmandu.

Personally, I have long and publicly supported campaigns for equality for gay people. I have never met and do not have any connection with the producers. I requested a copy of the programme prior to transmission (as I would normally do when interested in any programme) and know nothing of any "selective leaking" of it, as Senator Davis Norris alleges occurs. Quite what he even means is unclear, as there is no big secret about upcoming programmes.

Producers, all the time, "selectively leak" their programmes to whomever they think might publicise them.

The producers also brought their project, when it was in development, to some film festivals. This is a practice that would be encouraged by those developing Irish film and TV.

To imply that it suggests that they were indecently seeking publicity, as has indeed been implied, is like blaming an author for wanting to be published.

Senator Norris has suggested that certain pre-publicity, specifically an image of a youth in shorts who some deem "hot", was designed to swell the profits of the company that made this programme with the backing of the Irish Film Board and RTE. There is nothing wrong with an independent producer making a profit if they can, and it is not that easy, but in this instance proceeds from the documentary are actually said to be going to a children's charity in Nepal.

The image in question was a frame from the documentary.

Senator Norris claimed in Seanad Eireann, "An attempt has been made to create such a firestorm of hostile publicity that justice may never retrospectively be done."

He alleged, "This film was selectively leaked to quarters where, it was calculated, it would do most damage and most dangerously inflame opinion."

As I say, it was not "leaked" to me, and I am very favourably disposed towards poetry and supportive of gay rights. Many people were surprised at the ease with which homosexuality laws were liberalised in Ireland, and by a Fianna Fail minister at that, and there is no basis for assuming that citizens cannot distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour, be it gay or straight.

Suggestions by the programme's detractors that the some of the poet's "scorned lovers" in Nepal were somehow duped into giving particular types of interview by the producer seem somewhat contradictory.

For if these young men are old enough for mature adults to take them to bed without legal consequence, then surely they are old enough to decide how to handle a TV crew?

But most difficult of all to take seriously is the suggestion by Senator Norris that the Irish public should have been prevented from seeing the documentary until it was first vetted by politicians. I kid you not. He proposed in Seanad Eireann that this film "be referred to the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources so that the truth can be established with the assistance of experts".

Senator Norris used to be regarded as a great advocate of liberty. However, he has recently been prominent in the Seanad against the reform of libel laws as sought by Irish media organisations and journalists, and he now wants films and TV programmes vetted by a Dail committee. The liberty to be gay is not superior to the liberty to speak freely.

Professor Colum Kenny teaches broadcasting at DCU

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