Irish film-maker Treasa O’Brien has created a valuable and empathic documentary essay project about history, memory and community; it is executive produced by The Act of Killing’s Josh Oppenheimer, whose influence is detectable in one verbatim-cinema-type “dream re-enactment” scene (although I must say that this is the one creative avenue that doesn’t really go anywhere).
Town of Strangers is set in the town of Gort in County Galway, perhaps best known for being the site of Coole House, the home of Lady Gregory and the Irish literary revival of Yeats, Synge, O’Casey and Shaw. None of that is mentioned, however: O’Brien focuses on its 21st-century distinction of having Ireland’s highest percentage of migrants. O’Brien auditions for people to come and be involved in her documentary, and these “audition” scenes evolve into being the central part of the film itself: where people simply talk about their lives, where they’ve come from and what they expect of Gort. We hear from Brazilian people, Syrian people, Afghan people, Irish Travellers and English hippies.
This film is an invigorating, refreshing experience because of its clear-sighted compassion and lack of parochialism, its interest in other people from other cultures, without these impulses being problematised in any way. I have to say that I liked this movie almost in spite of the way it supposedly shapeshifts and genre-straddles between fiction and documentary as the marketing suggests; in fact, I don’t think it does. Despite some shots of the director doing local radio interviews about the way her film is going, it isn’t as meta as all that: its force lies in the simple candour of her interviewees. As films have so often in the past, Town of Strangers proves that there is great cinematic impact in the simple spectacle of people talking about themselves.
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