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BLACK NIGHTS 2019 First Feature Competition

Dathai Keane • Director of Finky

“In the end, it’s a classic hero’s journey”


- We talked to Irish filmmaker Dathai Keane about his debut feature, Finky, and fairy tales for adults

Dathai Keane  • Director of Finky

In Finky [+see also:
film review
interview: Dathai Keane
film profile
, making its way into the First Feature Competition of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (15 November-1 December), Dathai Keane tells the oddest bedtime story of the year by focusing on a musician (Dara Devaney) who, after a serious accident on his way to Scotland, ends up in a wheelchair. Only to then join a circus troupe. Naturally.

Cineuropa: It’s such an unusual character you have here, embarking on this adventure. Frankly, everyone in the film seems a bit off, as shown in the scene riffing on Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Dathai Keane:
I suppose I was trying to come up with the idea that would suit a particular actor. I had already worked with Dara before so I knew he was very musical, he also does puppetry. People always say: “Don’t work with children and animals.” To which I would add: and puppets. They are the worst.

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Finky is like any of us. He is not perfect, none of them are, but I have a lot of love for characters who are ordinary yet noble. You can find that in American literature, in Augie March, for example [from The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow]. It’s not that they are unlikeable, but they don’t go out of their way to seem heroic. Even though at the end of the day, especially for someone like Finky, there is heroism to it.

The way he changes, visually at least, is almost absurd. He actually comments on it as well, asking: “Are you trying to make a pirate out of me?”
He is doing that to himself, you know? He is punishing himself. In a way, he ends up looking the way he feels inside. He looks grotesque because that’s how he feels. In English, we say that someone has a sense of “crippling guilt”. It can cripple you and that’s what he is suffering from. He goes nowhere in his life and that ends up manifesting itself as a form of paralysis.

You wait until the end to explain why he is behaving like this. But there is some nastiness to Finky that you are not afraid of showing.
If you have a person who is so filled with self-loathing, that eventually manifests itself in how they interact with the world. The scene when he is molesting a woman who is trying to help him, that’s him pushing everything away. Before he does that, he looks at himself while he is rolling down the street and he sees what he has become. That was a big challenge and that scene was something I had to fight for. It’s not an easy film and the Hollywood version would probably be a bit watered down. Once the audience finds him repellent, can you then get them back by showing why he is like that? Hopefully, you are still rooting for him by the end.

Did you always want to shoot in Irish?
It was funded by the scheme Cine4, which is all about making films in the Irish language and I was keen to try it. Some of the inspiration for the film came from Pádraic Ó Conaire’s novel Deoraíocht – he is one of the pillars of Irish literature but he only ever wrote one novel. I was amazed by how modern it was. To me, he was doing what Joyce was doing – before Joyce was actually doing it. The title means ‘exile’ and it’s based in London, with an Irishman who ends up on the streets. Finky goes to Scotland and although it might not be apparent from an outsider’s perspective, there are two versions of Irish spoken in the film, including Scots Gaelic. It’s such a common story, so many of us go away and just fall through the cracks. The Irish tend to form their own little ghettos of Irishness. I lived in New York for a while, in a house full of men – the cheapest place you could find. One was going through his third divorce, another working as a clown. When you go abroad and find yourself in these situations that are slightly absurd, it all becomes very normal very quickly. I thought that was an interesting idea. When you are out of your comfort zone, you accept things that are a bit abnormal. You have to.

For these more absurd moments, what did you have in mind? There are neon lights, post-apocalyptic costumes. It feels like you made a fairy tale for adults.
I grew up in Galway and there is a festival every year, you can see big spectacles from Europe or circus troupes with flames, motorbikes and people dressed like Mad Max. A little bit of that was an inspiration for that circus in the film, which is very anarchic and chaotic. That’s what Finky comes up against. I always liked going to the circus when I was young, there is something scary about it. The theatre too – there is electricity between you and the stage.

It’s all very mythical, I think. We would always talk about myths and archetypal characters when writing, like the circus ringmaster who is this malevolent force. A lot of them are larger than life, but it’s a classic hero’s journey at the end. Even though he is not a typical hero.

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