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Alan Gilsenan • Director

“The story behind the film opens one's eyes to the idea of restorative justice”


- We had a chat to Alan Gilsenan about his latest work, The Meeting, a fiction film based on the real-life story of a young Irish woman and her encounter with her attacker

Alan Gilsenan  • Director

Acclaimed Irish film and theatre director Alan Gilsenan talked to us about his latest feature film, The Meeting [+see also:
interview: Alan Gilsenan
film profile
. Produced by Tomás Hardiman, Gilsenan's work focuses on controversial, provocative themes and was recently presented at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, which wrapped on 4 March.

Cineuropa: Could you briefly describe the plot of The Meeting?
Alan Gilsenan:
The Meeting is based on a real-life event when a young Irish woman, who had been violently and sexually assaulted in a Dublin suburb, met with her assailant after he had served his time in prison. After nearly a decade of distress, depression and unrest, the woman in question felt that she could only find peace if she was able to face her "monster" and meet him as a person. 

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How did the idea come about? Why did you decide to broach the highly emotional topic of sexual assault?
The idea came from a number of conversations that emerged out of a film that I had previously made with the same producer, Tomás Hardiman, about the radical psychiatrist Ivor Browne. Those conversations led to discussions about forgiveness and restorative justice. It was then that I heard the remarkable story of the meeting, and very quickly, I settled upon the idea of making a small but radical film based almost entirely on what unfolded during that intense but short period of time.

Does The Meeting open new perspectives on these issues and sensitise public opinion somehow? If yes, why?
To be honest, I have to say that I always recoil at the idea of a film being about an issue – although of course what you say is often true. “Issues” seem to disguise the inherent nature of the story; they can reduce the complexity, the ambiguity and the mystery of human experience. For me, "issues" are the stuff of current affairs and journalism, not filmmaking. But I do think the story behind the film opens one's eyes to the whole idea of restorative justice – a fresh perspective on justice and on sexual crime, in particular, which has become so divisive and so intractable in society today.

How long did you work on The Meeting for? What kinds of difficulties did you encounter along the way, creatively?
As I alluded to earlier, the film all happened very quickly, and that was great because it was an unusual project, and films can often drag on for years in the making. We made this one really rapidly, and even though it was hugely difficult and we were dealing with a sensitive subject, in many ways it was a very easy movie to make. That was mainly because the central character – the woman whose story the film is entirely based on – was so committed and focused on sharing her experience. She is quite a remarkable woman – composed, determined and, above all, generous of spirit. 

Could you tell us about your crew? How did they help you in bringing this work to life?
It is a cliché for directors to say that film is a collaborative art, but of course, that is entirely true. I was blessed enough to work with a close friend and collaborator of mine, film editor Emer Reynolds. Emer, who has recently enjoyed huge success as a director with The Farthest [+see also:
film profile
, brought great rigour and detail to what was a very challenging edit, and our director of photography, Colm Hogan, and his entire camera crew were really fantastic. It was such an intense and intimate project, and I felt it was important to assemble a small team of like-minded people who were all invested in the delicacy of the operation. So, in some ways, it was more akin to the experience of theatre. The musical score was composed by a wonderful band called Cloud Castle Lake.They brought a different dimension to the production. And, of course, throughout the whole process, the producer, Tomás Hardiman, shepherded everything through with care and real integrity.

Your feature seems to break down the boundaries between documentary and fiction, as the protagonist, Ailbhe Griffith, portrays herself and relives her own drama. What was the reason for this directorial decision?
I was always clear that the film was a drama and not a documentary, even though it was rigorously based on real events. I knew that casting Ailbhe was a real risk, and it was a risk I resisted for some time. But somehow, it just seemed that she was the only person who could play the part convincingly. That is probably not entirely true, but she brings a complex and powerful dimension to the film, I hope.

You presented The Meeting at the Dublin International Film Festival at the beginning of March. How was the film received by the audience? Are you satisfied with your work?
I am never entirely satisfied with my work. It is always a case, as Samuel Beckett put it, of “fail again, fail better”. However, the response to the film seems to have been hugely positive, and I think people are particularly struck by Ailbhe's bravery and dignity.

Do you have any upcoming projects? When are they expected to be released?
I have a feature film called Unless [+see also:
film profile
being released in the cinemas on 16 March. It was a film made long before The Meeting and was shot in Toronto with Catherine Keener in the lead role. It is based on the final novel by the great Canadian author Carol Shields. Among the wonderful cast was German cinema icon and muse of Fassbinder Hanna Schygulla.

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