School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland
Early on in Marina Abramović’s performance piece The Artist is Present (performed at MoMa in 2010) she realised that she had underestimated the human need for connection with others as well as time for self-reflection, and that the intensity of this need would override the hectic state of our contemporary lives resulting in a packed-out gallery with people queuing for hours to sit opposite her for the duration of the 3-month performance. The Artist is Present, like many of her performances, is about human connection, but it’s also about pain, suffering, understanding, and empathy. The point of her work is not so much an exploration of how one personally experiences and copes with pain, but with how we understand and take action when confronted with the pain of others. As such, Abramović conceives of herself as a vehicle through which her audience work out their response to suffering, violence, and hurt. In a similar way, Ailbhe Griffith, in choosing to play herself in The Meeting, is rendered in the role of a mirror held up to the viewer. She astonishingly re-enacts her 2014 meeting with Martin Swan, which took place nine years after he brutally sexually assaulted her, and she unflinchingly recounts the pain of that attack and its aftermath during the meeting. Ailbhe embodies, for the audience, the trauma experienced as a result of the sexual assault and gifts us with a relived performance of the meeting with Martin in order that we may contemplate the effects of violence and the potential for healing after it.
In a film that is underpinned by trauma, healing, and violence, it is significant that The Meeting opens with a quote from Jacques Derrida, a philosopher keenly interested in psychoanalysis and in one of its key concepts: Thanos or, the death drive. Thanos is used by psychoanalysts to explore the question of where to “locate” violence. In other words, how can we explain the existence of violence and aggression? These were important considerations for Freud who drew on Greek mythology to help him work through these questions. In the same way Greek myths offer pared back tales of morality, of the establishment of law and order, and of the triumph of what is good and rational over what is destructive, violent and chaotic, The Meeting, in some respects, represents a 21st century Greek Tragedy in its minimalism and in its dealing with issues of power, violence, and the subjugation of women. Stories such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex have been read as maps for guiding human behaviours and actions away from aggressive impulses. Yet, in its engagement with the subject of restorative justice, the film moves beyond what is simply right and wrong by searching for an understanding of brutal violence as well as healing from trauma. In this sense it is a deeply spiritual film in its consideration for what it might represent and mean for people who engage with its subject matter. Victims of sexual assault, Ailbhe hopes, might take hope from the film’s depiction of how she achieves some catharsis through this process of engaging with the man who viciously attacked her.
The film opens with seven to eight minutes of Ailbhe’s written statement overlaid onto banal shots of a housing estate’s roundabout (similar to the one, the viewer assumes, where she was assaulted) and images of the violence inflicted upon her body (the bitten and bloodied nipple of her right breast; her skinned knees; the bite marks on her back). In its first sequence of dialogue, her attacker Martin (a pseudonym for the film), asserts that he “didn’t come here to apologise”. This, on the back of the opening Derrida quote that there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgiveable, begs the question of how one forgives if there is no atonement by the perpetrator for the wrongdoing. The answer, as explored in this film, is through understanding. What becomes clear early on, however, is that Ailbhe and Martin have difficulty reaching a shared or mutual understanding. Much of the dialogue, which was skilfully and sensitively scripted by Gilsenan based on recollections and notes by Ailbhe and other participants of the meeting, shows the pair talking past each other. They have divergent viewpoints, which are suggested through the use of slightly muffled sound and in the tuning in and out of each other’s voices; the use of diverted gazes; and the scene around the boardroom table, the setting for the conversation, which moves in and out of focus. Indeed, the sensation of being submerged, of drowning, of hearing faint and indistinct sounds pervades the film. It is suggestive of trying to communicate with someone who is not easily reached. Likewise, it may be representative of the pre-social realm as explored by psychoanalysts such as Julia Kristeva. In this interpretation, the muted sounds and water imagery conveys a womb-like impression, of the amniotic fluid around the human embryo and, as such, potentially references the debate as to whether male violence is mapped onto the male foetus in the womb and is therefore “natural” and inevitable, or if sex-based violence against women can be explained through socio-cultural and environmental factors.
This debate or question regarding the sociological versus the psychoanalytic or indeed biological reasons for violence is invoked early on in their meeting when Ailbhe refers to feeling incredulous at being identified in the Garda station as a “victim of sexual assault” and her disbelief at the strange reality of seeing her underwear in an evidence bag. Ailbhe’s incredulousness is mirrored in the shock of the male photographer who had to document her injuries at the Garda station. This forces us to rethink women’s subjection to violence by men as unavoidable, nudging us towards social explanations for Martin’s brutal assault. In the first extended contribution from Martin he tries to explain how he felt reading the book of evidence of the assault and how it made his “heart go bang”, but it’s not really clear what he means by this and when he sees that he hasn’t made himself understood to her, he reverts back to Ailbhe. Further into their conversation he again tries to explain himself by sharing that he always just wanted to be ‘ordinary’ but could never quite get there. Played brilliantly by boxer-turned-actor Terry O’Neill, Martin’s tone is just off enough to suggest at emotional issues. He lauds Ailbhe’s “articulation” and recounts that he was impressed with her description of him as “the personification of misogyny”. “I had to look it up” he explains. But, on the vicious aspects of his crime, he seems perplexed: “I couldn’t have done all that, could I? I mean, I know I’m…” he says as he trails off. Seeming to lack self-awareness and self-knowledge, he later talks about the men who chased him down after the attack on Ailbhe was over. They broke his collar bone, and of this he says: “I know you had it worse and all …”. There’s a “but” here; he’s looking for sympathy, and as viewers, we’re wondering if he has a sense of the seriousness of the attack, and whether he harbours any empathy for Ailbhe.
Despite Martin’s apparent lack of self-awareness, we do get glimpses of the motivation for the attack. Following a rejection by some young women in a bar in town, he comes across Ailbhe and follows her onto the Nitelink bus carrying her home to the Dublin suburb she lived in. He perceives her as being “so up herself” and is agitated to see her talking to some “fancy” guy. “I didn’t like that”, he says. Then, in answer to Ailbhe’s question of why he picked her to assault, he says simply: “It was your shoes; your high heeled shoes. They set me off. I just saw fucking red”. At a sociocultural level, we understand what he means by this. High heels are culturally suggestive of a sexually confident woman; a femininity that taunts him, that he resents since, as a male, he harbours a sense that sexual confidence should be his, and not hers. This admission by Martin has shades of ‘incel’ rhetoric; the self-titled, so-called ‘involuntary celibates’ who congregate on online forums to discuss their sexual frustration and their anger at women who won’t have sex with them. Underpinned by this, of course, is entitlement to women’s bodies and resentment if this is refused.
Envy, as psychoanalyst Melanie Klein has explained, “is the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable – the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it” (Klein 181). This idea is echoed in the actions of Martin who wanted to “spoil” Ailbhe’s confidence, her happiness, her sense of belonging and safety in the world. According to Klein, “one of the consequences of excessive envy is an early onset of guilt… guilt is felt as persecution and the object that rouses guilt is turned into a persecutor” (Klein 194). Martin’s acting violently toward Ailbhe suggests he feels that she has taunted him; that he is “persecuted” by her. Although Klein didn’t develop a social theory, she did explain that environmental conditions – factors such as unemployment or demeaning work (or for Martin, lack of success in intimate relationships) – can lead to a persecutory anxiety with feelings of anxiety toward the State or parents, or in this case, women. With no constructive outlet for resolving those emotions, guilt becomes aggression. For Klein, “the fundamental problem is the fear that stands in the way of the natural desire to love and care for others” (Alford 180); in other words, our fear that we don’t have the capacity to reconcile with destructive feelings and thereby move forward. However, by understanding our own anxieties we can begin to look outwards to the “universal” and move away from “self-interest”.
In fact, in the closing of the film, a shift away from self-centredness by Martin is suggested. A voice message left by Martin with the meeting’s facilitator asks that Ailbhe be told that he’s “sorry”. However, this mutual understanding that what occurred on that night was deeply harmful for Ailbhe seems mostly absent throughout their meeting. In response to Ailbhe’s assertion that she now hopes he realises who she is, he responds by deflecting back to himself and explains that he’s trying to get his life together and move on. “I’m doing my best”, he says. “I’m doing my best, yeah?” he repeats, looking over at his probation officer for reassurance who nods encouragement back to Martin. It’s certainly moving and reveals Martin’s vulnerability, but once more we’re left wondering if he really does know who she is or comprehend the seriousness of his actions. However, in an exchange where they do perfectly understand each other, Martin opens up about socialising with a group of friends and being asked by a female friend, unaware of his conviction, to walk her home “for safety”. Ailbhe and Martin both laugh at the bizarreness of that scenario. This is a remarkable moment in the film and offers a reminder that there are bound together by this shared traumatic experience. If, at the close of the meeting, understanding between the two has been reached, this is crucial. As Nhat Hanh has explained, “understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love” (10). He counsels that “compassion is the capacity to understand the suffering in oneself and in the other person” (18), and advises that “to know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen” (39). This is the work that Ailbhe does, and ultimately, we hope that Martin also has gone through this process from listening towards compassion, understanding, and consequently towards love.
The Meeting bears similarities with Gilsenan’s 2017 Meetings with Ivor; not least of which, the title of the films. This notion of “meeting” echoes an idea of “coming together”. Both films, which have a paired-back aesthetic, are preoccupied with healing through the face-to-face encounter, echoing Abramović’s performative work in its concern with sharing pain, and opening oneself to empathy and self-knowledge. Gilsenan’s choice of subjects in Ivor Browne and Ailbhe Griffith, makes clear his own interest in the realm of the psychological. Browne and Griffith both possess and exude emotional sensitivity, intellectual rigour and spiritual curiosity, as well as a determination in the search for knowledge, love, self-love and agency. In Meetings with Ivor, Browne at one-point quotes Jiddu Krishnamurti: “It’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society”. This speaks to what The Meeting is grappling with. While the film, and the process of Ailbhe and Martin coming face-to-face is fascinating and moving, and the film also suggests at what is clearly a cathartic process for Ailbhe, it attempts also to offer more than healing in our “sick society” in which male violence against women is so prevalent. This is achieved by proffering, albeit implicitly, social and material explanations for the savagery of Martin’s attack on Ailbhe. It is left to the viewer to reflect on and try to understand this sickness and move us all towards a cure.
Alford, Fred C. (1990). “Melanie Klein and the ‘Oresteia Complex’: Love, Hate, and the Tragic Worldview”. Cultural Critique 15 (1990): 167-189.
Guinness, Katherine and Grant David Bollmer. “Marina Abramović Doesn’t Feel Like You”. Feral Feminisms. Feminine Feelers 3 (winter 2015): 40-54.
Klein, Melanie (1957). Envy And Gratitude And Other Works 1946-1963. London: Routledge, 1957.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. How To Love. Berkeley, Cal.: Parallax Press, 2015.