The Secret Life of Centenarians: Alex Fegan

 
 

Alex Fegan, director of Older Than Ireland, speaks to Eva Griffin about Lego blocks, pubs, and what he learned from working with centenarians.


 

As a youngster, Alex Fegan spent hours animating entire cities from his bedroom floor. Whether constructing Lego sets or gleaning a different creative power from stationery, he found the building blocks for a budding film career in the comfort of his own home. One would think he grew up in a family of avid film-makers and theatre buffs, but the opposite is true. Fegan seems genuinely confused by his childhood inclination as the interest was by no means inherited. “My dad’s claim to fame is that he’s never even watched a film,” he laughs.

These days, Fegan can’t pin down why exactly he became so enamoured by the art of stop-motion animation. “That’s just how it began. I just got interested, there’s no rhyme or reason.” Whatever the attraction, the interest never dwindled and, after wandering into a Law degree and a few years in the office, Fegan’s first foray into documentary making saw him leave the desk for good.

The 2013 release of his debut documentary brought a fresh take on the story of Ireland with our institution of the pub as the vehicle. Released to critical acclaim, The Irish Pub swiftly led Fegan to his latest venture, Older Than Ireland, thanks to a conversation that arose during filming. “I was chatting to this guy and he said that he was going to a birthday party of his auntie who was turning 100. Almost immediately the idea kind of clicked that wouldn’t it be interesting not just to film her but to film 30 people around Ireland, especially because we’re now approaching the centenary of the 1916 rising.”

Commemorating the birth of the nation through our eldest citizens resulted in the most Irish of coincidental events. “Initially I was like ‘How the hell are you going to find 30 people over 100?’ as you would. But what we realised was that every person we interviewed knew somebody up the road.” Fegan and his crew meandered around the country being sent from one centenarian to the other in a connect-the-dot map of friends and family.

Filmed between September 2014 and February of this year, Fegan spent most of those months sitting with his subjects in their respective homes to “have a chat”, though he learned from his previous endeavour not to chat too much. “I think what you learn is to keep your mouth shut, which you can probably see is difficult for me,” he laughs. “When you ask a question, just do not interrupt no matter what.”

“It’s funny, a lot of the family members never knew these stories. So they were like ‘Oh my God her first kiss was in a ditch in Pollerton Big in Carlow.’”

From his careful procedure of listening and subtle conversational nudges comes a portrait of Ireland both personal and universal, linking the past and present through the most remarkably everyday tales. “We’d go through their life chronologically, mainly talking about the universal things; their first pair of shoes, first day at school, first kiss, what was their happiest day, their wedding day, their honeymoon, and having children… just the things that everyone would experience, but getting their perspective on it.”

Having scrapped his initial plan to guide the audience through Ireland’s history by decade as dictated by the centenarians’ views, Fegan soon found a more natural approach to the subject. “Very quickly, almost after the first interview, we realised that just wasn’t going to work. What happens is people start to intellectualise events and it takes away from the emotion of it. What we realised was that when they were talking about their own personal stories, it goes deeper, it’s more raw.”

The learning process uncovered by giving a voice to the elderly is shared not just by director and audience, but by the interviewees’ families too. Unheard stories are given voice, and Fegan found the reactions quite comical. “It’s funny, a lot of the family members never knew these stories. So they were like ‘Oh my God, her first kiss was in a ditch in Pollerton Big in Carlow’. Each of them had their own little stories, so even for the family members it was a jolt to realise just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’re not human.”

Of course, these humorous anecdotes are interspersed with moments of raw human emotion. Having lived such long lives, the theme of death is unavoidable when a centenarian is in front of the camera, whether it be the closeness of it or the loss it brings. Though the stories aren’t the most pleasant to hear, the universal resonance lends true lasting power to Fegan’s film, something he became aware of quickly. “One gentleman said about his wife that when she died… he had met her when they were four years of age. They’d spent their entire life together, it was clearly true love. And when we were interviewing him he said ‘When she died, I died.’ And this man’s 104 years of age. That’s just so remarkable, how can people not be connected to that?”

Though Fegan claims his interviewees weren’t looking to dish out life advice. The filming process naturally became a learning experience, something that is passed onto the audience. “What we realised was that there’s something in common among all the centenarians. They’re all very philosophical without the philosophy. It’s just to do with their attitude. You can’t even identify one particular attitude because initially I thought that the secret to reaching 100 must be that they’re all very positive in life… but then Bessie Nolan says something like ‘Oh somebody’s going to have to just shoot me.’”

When asked to hand-pick just one amazing moment, Fegan is unsurprisingly stumped. “Oh God there’s so many… It’s one of those documentaries where you had pre-conceptions of what centenarians are like that they’d be very timid or conservative, frail, not very active. And a lot of them were thrown right away. Some of them weren’t conservative at all. Some of them were very adventurous, had a great sense of humour and loved to talk. After the interview we’d come out and have a chat and say ‘Well, what did you think of that? How will it fit in?’ And we’d kind of go ‘Well that was kind of remarkable, wasn’t it?’”

With ventures into period drama and science-fiction already under his belt, Fegan is now turning his lens onto an up-coming comedy, Salt ‘n Vinegar, set in north-side Dublin. His interest in making films isn’t dictated by an interest in a particular genre, he explains. “It really comes down to what interests you at any particular moment. I think if story-telling is story-telling, it doesn’t matter what the genre or area you’re trying to do it in… It doesn’t matter if you’re filming people over 100 or whether you’re filming pubs or whether you’re filming science-fiction; it’s the same principles. You just don’t want to bore an audience, that’s all.”

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