Hypnotic Irish film reclaims the moon from the imperialists

When producer Clare Stronge first spoke with filmmaker Tadhg O’Sullivan to discuss his exquisite new work, To the Moon, it seemed like the perfect time. Stronge, who just enjoyed an award-winning series with Emer Reynolds’ Voyager documentary The Farthest, had made invaluable contacts with NASA during his investigation of the two robotic interstellar probes and the Golden Record.

These contributors, however, were not at all what Tadhg O’Sullivan had in mind. On the contrary, the director’s new poetic mediation on everyone’s favorite satellite characterizes the scientific exploration of the orb as a quasi-imperialist enterprise. To the Moon is a fascinating journey, even if it is more figurative than literal.

“You could say it’s the most literal act humanity has ever taken, to go to the moon, turn on the lights and demystify it,” says O’Sullivan. “You have this timeless symbol of femininity, and especially having six white Americans going to plant a flag – it’s kind of an imperialist gesture. From my own kind of reading and thinking, there’s a line from Columbus and other colonizers to the moon landings, to people like Jules Verne, and the Victorian adventurers who first suggested traveling to the moon, and how it fueled the collective imagination, especially in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, which, in turn, led to Werner von Braun and the science behind NASA. This is something I thought about when I was writing the movie. I wanted to look at all the things that got a little lost about the moon. All the folklore and the imagination that has been obscured by scientific exploration.

Tadhg O’Sullivan

The scope of O’Sullivan’s lunar mediation cannot be overstated. Having reached archives around the world, To the Moon incorporates footage from dozens of countries and sources, including films from Mosfilm Cinema Concern, National Film Archives of India, National Archives of Latvia, Archives of Estonian film, the George Eastman Museum, the National Film Board of Canada and even the Disney safes.

Having avoided a “normative” instruction to its international collaborators, O’Sullivan’s film presents all kinds of representations of the moon and moonlight. Lesser-known footage and footage from Ukraine, Hungary and Italy is cleverly cut between the works of Alice Guy-Blaché, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, FW Murnau and Satyajit Ray. New 16mm moonlit footage from around the world is seamlessly edited in 4: 3 aspect ratio which adds to the charm of the movie.

Rich tapestry

“I’m someone who worked in very, very small teams before this,” says O’Sullivan. “So I wasn’t really used to working with large groups or groups of diverse people. And what I found that worked the best was if I kept it pretty abstract. If you are literal enough and just say; I want pictures of the moon, there have been cases where people have returned five pictures of the moon from their phones. And that’s great, but not really what I’m looking for. But there were people I sat down with, on the phone or by email, who just talked about the moon. People who said: I love this poem, I love this song, I love this movie. It was the spirit of the film. I had a PDF, which sort of explained a lot of themes and ideas, with sample images and little bits of poetry. Because you don’t know what you are going to find in the Estonian archives.

The results are a rich tapestry. The images are accompanied by a new score by Amanda Feery and Linda Buckley, as well as fragments of lunar-themed opera and classical music by Wagner, Debussy and Dvorák. Various literary sources, ranging from Shakespeare to Plutarch to Samuel Beckett, are recounted by Olwen Fouéré and others. And then there is the mythology of the moon.

A photo of To the Moon

A photo of To the Moon

“There was a series of rabbit holes,” says O’Sullivan. “Sitting with an iPad, by the fireside, everything is possible at the start of a project, and you disappear along long avenues, I don’t know, of Inca folklore and Moon Palaces. It is very difficult to explore something that you have not really mastered, like Native American South American folklore. He doesn’t have a cinematic presence either, really. And so your only way would be to use some poetry or dialogue snippets or something like that.

“There are a lot of interesting things. I really wanted to represent a great diversity of cultures. And I was in a bookstore at one point in Amsterdam, and a beautiful book jumped out at me, which was a collection of Native American poetry, which I leafed through. And there was a Jennifer Foerster poem, Blood Moon Triptych, which I absolutely fell in love with at the time. I used it to open the movie and to close the movie. And she was very generous in allowing me to use that.

Test film

O’Sullivan, one of Ireland’s most talented hyphens, grew up in the Carlow countryside, where, he says, film and literature were his window to the world. He was in college before considering pursuing a career as a filmmaker, editor, sound designer and sound engineer. His work has subsequently been screened at festivals around the world and he is currently the Artist in Residence at University College Cork. As an editor he worked on two of the best Irish films of the past decade, Song of Granite and The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid.

As a director, he co-wrote Yximalloo, a 2014 documentary portrait of a cult Japanese musician who has spent most of his 57 years struggling to integrate into the music scene and into society.

To the Moon, his third solo feature film offers an interesting counterpoint to O’Sullivan’s The Great Wall, his 2016 poetic reflection on European borders and “the political architecture of power” on a reading of At the Building of the Great Wall of by Kafka. China.

Both films situate O’Sullivan’s work in the tradition of the essay film, a vogue subgenre elastic enough to cover Dziga Vertov’s seminal Man on Camera (1929), Leni’s chilling Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl (1935), Audenauthor, Night Mail (1936) noted by Britten, midfielder Chris Marker, and the animated and oft-cited guide Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), with Slavoj Zizek.

“I don’t necessarily think of myself as a storyteller,” says O’Sullivan. “There is nothing wrong with stories, per se. I have read them. I look at them. But I’m really drawn to the essay right now and over the past few years. Within literature it’s kind of a new moment, and I think the essay is a perfect setting for the kind of curiosity that I love. Because someone can just go looking for something. It may seem inconsistent and can wander from place to place, but it all stems from a particular burst of curiosity. I think the way we work through culture these days, when there is so much going on, when we go from an association with one thing that we discover to something else that is happening to us, we are constantly looking for models that connect and make sense of our journey through everything around us.

The personal essay continues to inform O’Sullivan’s latest venture, an experimental foray into the fictional film starring Brenda Fricker. It seems, like all of his work to date, inescapable.

“It started out as an essay about lost and destroyed art, and about being sort of fascinated with why we seek to preserve things and the politics of preservation. You can then consider things like the overthrow of statues and stolen Van Goghs and the history of the city of Venice. And when I thought about these things, I wondered: what if I presented this essay as the thought process of a fictional character, and then filmed this fictional character living his life? Fast forward two years later, and we’re in North Clare in a house surrounded by a tide with Brenda Fricker. This is what the film has become. And it’s pretty exciting. It’s new.”

To the Moon opens November 26


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