Interview: Cathal Kenna Talks Coming Home
Showing in Movies@Dundrum later this month, Cathal Kenna’s documentary Coming Home is described as ‘an intimate portrayal of the experiences of Irish emigrants’ that explores the concept of home and its meaning to different kinds of people. Ahead of the screeings in Dundrum from November 18-24, Film In Dublin spoke with Cathal about his motivations and experiences of making the film and the experiences of those who have left and returned to this island.
Film In Dublin: What was the genesis for Coming Home? What made you want to cover this subject?
Cathal Kenna: Circa 2008 a big chunk of my family and friends packed their bags and left Ireland. I became fascinated in their stories and what became of them.
FID: How many left all in that same year if you don’t mind me asking?
CK: I’d have to sit down with a pen and paper to work it out but at least twenty. Maybe as much as forty.
FID: Your film focuses on five emigrants. How did you go about choosing the subjects of your film? What made these people in particular stand out to you?
CK: Two I’m related to. One I found through an Irish Times Generation article. Another two I found through a social media push. Timing and availability were the main factors in choosing subjects. There were other subjects I’d like to have covered, particularly a couple moving back to Northern Ireland but the timing didn’t work out on that one. What interested me about the subjects selected was they had different experiences covering the Irish emigrant experience, some of which complimented each other, some which contrasted heavily. Some had rural backgrounds others had urban. There were inter-generational contrasts too which added a nice flavour. All of them spoke candidly on camera and were very generous and open in sharing their experiences.
FID: How did you find the experiences of those from rural backgrounds and those from more urban parts of the country differed?
CK: For a start it was noted by the subjects that it appeared more challenging to secure employment on return to Ireland in a rural setting. A spike in rural crime was noted and surprised those returning who used to leave their hoUses unlocked when they last lived in Ireland. A slower pace of life in rural areas was also noted with some positive and negative sides to that observed…
FID: And what kind of impact did you find first leaving Ireland had on these people?
CK: A mixture of excitement and apprehension. The impact of homesickness was significant and manifested itself, after the initial high of exploring new worlds passed, in physical sickness symptoms. A heavy sense of displacement followed. Some experienced racism. Others were welcomed with open arms. All clung to their sense of Irishness and identity. Some embraced a feeling of anonymity and flourished, making the most of new and exciting opportunities.
FID: You mention racism. Unfortunately we’re seeing more and more anti-immigrant sentiment, I was going to ask if the subjects of your film or others you’ve spoken to had experienced it. What in modern times makes Irish immigrants subject to racism and how common do you think it is for the Irish specifically?
CK: Those that experienced it and spoke about it in the film were from the generation that left Ireland in the 50s and 60s. They experienced it in the UK against the backdrop of the Troubles and ironically in a reverse racism scenario when mistaken for being English when returning to Ireland in an English car on holidays. The feeling was a new Irish emigrant leaving today is far less likely to experience racism abroad.
FID: Most of those shown in your film are returning (or have returned) to Ireland having been away for decades. What is it that typically draws them to return home after so long?
CK: Quality time with loved ones before its too late, a sense of belonging and identity, a general feeling of being “at ease” in a place, a returning to source and completing a circle.
FID: This was your first feature length doc and you’ve mentioned already the importance of timing and availability. What were some of the challenges of putting together a film with subjects living all over the world?
CK: Budget restraints, learning on the job, multi-tasking, nurturing and maintaining relationships with different personality types, lumbering equipment half way around the world and back, lack of sleep, dealing with uncertainty frequently ,working alone for sustained periods of time…
FID: So quite a few things then…what would you say was the main thing you learned about filmmaking from Coming Home?
CK: A film has to have a deeply personal meaning and innate value to you. It’s essential to know why you are undertaking a project before you start. Filmmaking will test you to your limits and knowing the ‘why’ part before you start will get you through the inevitable challenges you will meet along the way.
FID: And finally, going forward is your interest primarily in making more documentaries or would you ever work from a script as well? Do you have anything lined up for the near future?
CK: I started filming a new doc called Open Your Eyes, about a Dublin man who had involvment with Reggie Kray, Ronnie Biggs and several other colourful characters. I’m also writing a script for a feature length film called Predators, about the dark Web, a taxi driver and three customers he takes over the course of one night in a TBC city.