School of Film and Television at Falmouth University, Cornwall, UK
Fairytale Of Kathmandu was first broadcast on RTÉ1, 11th March 2008.
Produced by David Rane
Directed and narrated by Neasa Ní Chianáin
Music by Arnaud Ruest
Cinematography Tristan Monbureau
Editing by Úna Ní Dhongháile and Declan McGrath
It must have seemed an enticing but simple prospect: make a film about your neighbour, a poet whose work you have loved since you were a student, whose simple bravery in coming out as a gay man in a rural Irish community has inspired you. Perhaps you will illuminate his work for those unfamiliar with it, perhaps reveal hidden depths in the man himself. And yet, for Neasa Ní Chianáin, the project took on a life of its own as her subject, poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh, revealed himself to be not quite the man she had imagined.
Ó Searcaigh is a writer of lyrical grace, whose delicate, sophisticated poems on loneliness, personal identity, and homosexual love have deservedly gained him a place in the Irish language canon, and in the Irish literary establishment via membership of Aosdána. But this film depicts a tremendously flawed man, unwilling to see how his sexual relationships with vulnerable Nepalese teenagers are fatally corrupted by their dependence on his Western power and money, and his (apparently) guileless inability to see the terrible bonds of obligation this supposed generosity places upon them.
Creditably, Ní Chianáin conducts neither witch hunt nor show trial — and all of the boys with whom Ó Searcaigh conducts his liaisons are above the Nepalese age of consent. Instead she allows us to experience her own dawning realisation, in what becomes a tentative exploration of one of the central questions of documentary: what happens when the film you intend to make is not, in fact, the film that needs to be made? So much of contemporary documentary consists of ‘experts’ constructing elaborate platforms from which to display their own supposedly superior knowledge that it is refreshing to encounter a film in which the filmmakers’ awareness of their own contingent, limited access to the truth is central to the narrative.
Ó Searcaigh is approached at first with a degree of deference, observed looking through childhood photographs. One image, of him at school, is greeted with the words “The poor thing! He didn’t know what was going to happen to him!” — a phrase that seems to prime us for simple hagiography, but which later resonates at more sinister levels. He comes across as a rather fey, socially awkward character; unselfconsciously delighted with his nickname “the Guru of the Hills”, a moon-faced boy trapped in an ageing body. This spiritual Peter Pan is altogether disarming and seductive; a sign in his Donegal house reads “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”.
As prayer flags flutter in the wind outside, he talks proudly of his surrogate-father relationship with Prem, the Nepalese “spiritual son” he has known since he was a teenager. Prem, we are told, is now married and a father, with a jewellery business part-financed by the poet. This opening, full of apparent openness and innocence, will gradually come to take on radically different meanings.
Ní Chianáin travels with Ó Searcaigh to Nepal, where she meets Prem and a slew of young men who appear to have nothing but respect and affection for the poet. Among them is Santharam, a young man thrilled at the generosity of his Western benefactor, who pays his room and board while he studies. And yet, for all the laughter and celebration at the poet’s return, there is something slightly disturbing in the men’s treatment of him; garlanding him with flowers, cleaning his room, polishing his shoes. As sometimes happens when we are given the opportunity to observe other cultures from afar, we find ourselves uncertain how to interpret what we are seeing.
Is this sort of practiced subservience normal, or are we witnessing some subtle kind of neo-colonial dynamic? Ní Chianáin does not press the point; she simply observes as Ó Searcaigh is welcomed as an old friend, bringing coveted gifts of chocolate, the men later swopping stories over dinner. And so we are unsure whether to read his statement that one of the things that has impressed him most about Nepal is that “men and young teenagers are very comfortable with each other” as the musings of a benevolent mentor or something less laudable.
It is when the group treks outside of Kathmandu that deeper stirrings of something amiss creep in. At a rural inn the poet invites Ram, a teenage local boy with no English, for dinner and then later into his bed. This seems extraordinarily naïve, particularly in a culture where men appear to remain almost entirely sexually inexperienced until marriage, and where homosexuality is not tolerated, physically warm and open friendships between men notwithstanding.
And yet here is the crux of the matter; Ó Searcaigh seems to have no awareness of the innately predatory character of his behaviour; he is all self-willed romantic delusion, driven by what seems a combination of rampant ego and hidden loneliness, his previous apparently ingenuous appreciation for the “innocence” of young Nepalese men appearing more sinister by the moment. Ram’s slow, measured gaze at the camera the next morning does not seem to invite further discussion. Ní Chianáin pronounces herself disturbed, but cannot bring herself to confront Ó Searcaigh, saying that she felt she had no right to judge, Ram being of age.
Their return to Kathmandu brings more unease for the clearly ambivalent Ní Chianáin, as Ó Searcaigh buys clothes and a bicycle for various teenage boys and speaks of his desire to protect their innocence. Yet — through compassion, cynicism, or cowardice — she delays what seems an inevitable confrontation, instead concentrating on his first relationship, secret and tormented, which appears to have set the template for his later expectations of love and sex. Her repeated revisitation of Ó Searcaigh’s lost Irish love muddies the moral waters rather than clearing them; his eloquent poetry speaking of wasted passion and abandonment, his behaviour unthinkingly exploitative.
Finally, even his long friendship with Prem seems blighted. Ó Searcaigh’s story, told early in the film, of their chance meeting on a Kathmandu street and immediate “unique bond” — a story Ó Searcaigh concludes with the words “We have to believe in these little miracles that happen to us every day” — is soiled by the evidence of a succession of young men with poor English summoned to Room 405 of the Buddha Hotel in front of the increasingly-uneasy hotel manager.
It is this unnamed hotel manager who speaks the truth most clearly. As he describes how Westerners say they want to help, but in fact are “taking benefit” from their encounters, his discomfort and weary anger are clear. For him, the ultimate point is that “If somebody really wants to help Nepal or the Nepalese, they should help without terms and conditions”.
It is clear, for him, that the kind of relationships Ó Searcaigh conducts are symptomatic of larger dislocations between the first and the developing world. In speaking out, he forces the filmmaker — who here moves from intermittent commentator to participant in the film — to acknowledge that she has been deliberately deceiving herself; her voiceover tells us that she “felt shame, shame for not wanting to see.” What had been intended as an intimate artistic portrait has inadvertently turned into a battleground for debates on modern morality and questions about how the West has come to treat the developing world as a money-buys-anything playground for its tourists, sexual and otherwise.
The Nepalese boys whose company Ó Searcaigh enjoys may in some ways benefit, but at what larger cost? Sexual exploitation of the poor remains exploitation, regardless of the amounts of money concerned, the good any individual sum may do, or the wide-eyed self-deceptions employed by those engaged in it. It is at this point that Ní Chianáin’s conception of herself as a filmmaker seems to change in front of our eyes, and the film takes on a different character. She adopts a more investigative role, returning to Nepal alone to interview some of the boys she has seen Ó Searcaigh with. Now without the charismatic presence of the poet, one young man confesses that he considers himself the victim of a sexual predator, while another admits he did not even know what sex was, describing the poet’s anger when he would not have sex with him, his apparent insistence that “this is how we do it in the West”.
This change in focus leads to a rather disjointed feeling within the film, and Ní Chianáin’s final confrontation with Ó Searcaigh is clearly uncomfortable for both, her face a picture of torment as much as his. She clearly regrets that her project of poetic exploration has turned out this way, her friend still unwilling to acknowledge the dubious nature of his actions. When she accuses him of exploiting the boys, he says “For me, that is not the truth”. Asked why he would sleep with young men whose awareness of the sexual world was minimal rather than help them with their school work as he had promised, he replies bewilderedly, “why not?”
It is perhaps to the film’s greater good that there are no final answers here, certainly no trace of the slavering tabloid exposé; in some ways it is a story of the wider hurt that sexual exploitation brings to the community beyond its direct victims. The resulting media frenzy in Ireland was far less subtle or muted. From politically-opportunistic calls to have Ó Searcaigh’s poetry removed from the school curriculum, to hysterical and often casually homophobic radio phone-ins, the film was widely discussed and dissected at all levels of Irish society and everyone seemed to have an opinion; many, but not all, condemning. Torn between the desire to defend a friend and fellow artist and the unedifying sight of such apparently heedless misuse of economic and social power, even the Irish cultural establishment seemed finally to repudiate Ó Searcaigh.
Ní Chianáin and producer David Rane have not escaped the controversy, nor have production partners RTE, from whom they were forced to seek legal advice [Extensive coverage of the debate surrounding the film is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairytale_of_Kathmandu_controversy]. At one point they almost abandoned the project; their lack of investigative journalism skills had left them in deeper waters than they were prepared for. Ó Searcaigh went to ground in the wake of the film’s screening but has consistentlyrefuted its representation, saying that it gives a distorted, unfair version of his relationships with the men and has drawn comparisons between himself and Oscar Wilde. It is a provocative parallel, requiring us to ask uncomfortable questions regarding how we view sexuality that does not conform to heterosexual, family-centred norms. This was precisely the tack taken by the group of eminent Irish artists who wrote to the Irish Times supporting Ó Searcaigh, commenting “Had this documentary been attempted regarding a comparable heterosexual context, it would simply be a non-story” (Letters Section, Tuesday March 11th 2008). The irony of those whose professional identities often seem bound up in discourses of cultural resistance expressing their disapproval of the film by unintentionally valourising colonial-style exploitation seems pointed.
Do we hold artists to different standards of morality? Do we expect them to be ‘odd’, our Byrons and Wildes, to live lives of social and sexual liminality, and forgive their transgressions on the basis that their work redeems their acts? All of these young men were above the age of consent; Kathmandu apparently has a burgeoning gay rights movement and cruising areas; Ó Searcaigh has done nothing illegal, and has clearly made close friends in Nepal. Relationships between adults and teenagers are not always immoral, deviant or psychologically damaging. Has Ní Chianáin breached his trust in gaining access to Ó Searcaigh as a friend rather than as a filmmaker? Very possibly; but in doing so she has demonstrated one of the painful principles of documentary filmmaking — that although it remains a powerful way of bringing the hidden to light, both subject and filmmaker may suffer for doing so.
The public wrangles Ní Chianáin found herself engaged in also point to a larger issue within documentary; in a media-saturated age, uncertainty or open-mindedness in a filmmaker frequently comes across as merely rhetorical ploy — used to structure narrative in order to build empathy, introduce doubt, play with it, and then vindicate or convict the subject. The narrative’s emphasis on her uneasy presence within it places the audience in the position of judge, jury, friend and filmmaker, asks us to interpret for ourselves the ‘meaning’ of Ó Searcaigh’s actions, but Ní Chianáin’s subsequent ‘investigations’ leave us in no doubt that all is not quite right. It is a shame that these interactions are so limited — and unfortunately the Nepalese men shown often seem irretrievably ‘othered’, as she seems unable to reach beyond polite questioning, excluded by their friendly smiles and apparent enthusiasm for interaction with foreigners.
Ní Chianáin has been criticised for faults as contradictory as self-willed blindness and cynical entrapment. The documentarian as artistic chronicler is a world away from the documentarian as evangelical revealer of truth; her film gives us a portrait of a woman recoiling from unpleasant truths about a man she once respected. And yet her elegantly-drawn, matter-of-fact film does not flinch from confronting him, albeit compassionately and finally rather ineffectually. Power and responsibility are the primary weapons of the documentarian’s armoury; this film is a reminder of how fine the balance is between them.
‘Not Every Fairytale has a Happy Ever After’((This is the tag-line for the film taken from the official website — http://www.fairytaleofkathmandu.com — which includes an explanation and defence from the filmmaker concerning her ambitions and methods for the project as well as some of the many articles and commentary surrounding the film.))