Against the backdrop of Killarney’s scenic beauty, it’s all the more poignant to watch the grief-laden unravelling of a widower haunted by memories of his wife as he contemplates ending his life in The Gift, the first feature-length film by Cork director Damian O’Callaghan.
The film tackles the twin tragedies of a losing a loved one to cancer and of suicidal ideation through the eyes of protagonist Seán, played by Alan Devine, who is familiar to Irish audiences from roles in Fair City and Veronica Guerin, in which he played gangland figure Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch.
“It’s a movie that raises awareness of suicide, grief and loss,” O’Callaghan says. “We didn’t want to sugar-coat it; we wanted to tell it like it is. But at the end of the day, we want a message of hope to get through to the audience.”
The script for the independent film was born of O’Callaghan’s growing awareness of Ireland’s alarming suicide rates.
Opening a newspaper one day, a statistic stopped him in his tracks: “I read that between 2002 and 2012, 6,000 people had died by suicide in Ireland. I couldn’t believe it; I kept imagining just getting that number of people in a room. The number seemed staggering. And it’s not only those who are lost. It’s their families and loved ones who are left behind to pick up the pieces.”
He began to develop a script, initially a short film.
“I started by trying to imagine what it would take to drive me to something like that, to plan to take my own life,” he says. “I wanted to take the audience into the story through the character’s eyes, and to show how normal he is from beginning to end, and the journey he takes.”
When scriptwriter and producer Paul FitzSimons came aboard the project, the pair realised that the film had the makings of a feature. But they wanted to handle their subject matter both with sensitivity and with realism. They consulted with former CEO of Pieta House Joan Freeman on their script.
The resulting film has received positive responses at Kerry Film Festival and the 2016 World of Film Festival in Glasgow. “Every audience will have members with direct experience of the issues in the film,” O’Callaghan says, “It’s been very well received.”
Cork-born O’Callaghan has lived and worked in Killarney since he fell in love with the Kerry tourist spot in his twenties. “I came down for the weekend 20 years ago, and I haven’t gone home yet,” he laughs.
Having worked as a jarvey in Killarney, and as a bouncer in the town’s bars and clubs, O’Callaghan’s natural leanings towards storytelling were fostered when he trained as an actor at the Bricriú Theatre Company alongside Donal Courtney and Michael Fassbender. His directorial debut, Bouncers, was a short comedy based on his first-hand experiences of the job.
Self-funding a feature-length film is no mean feat, O’Callaghan says, but in Killarney, there’s precedent; Ireland’s first independent feature was shot in some of the same locations used for The Gift. Thomas G Cooper’s The Dawn was produced in the self-same DIY, entrepreneurial spirit in the early thirties, and O’Callaghan says that Killarney’s inhabitants are no different in the support they’ll offer a filmmaker today.
“We got great support from the people of Killarney,” he says. “Local businesses, the community: they’re trying to promote film tourism in Killarney. A lot of film in Ireland is shot in and around Dublin, but we have unbelievable resources here. I feel like we should explore that more.”
Following The Gift’s recent screening in the Omniplex in Rathmines, O’Callaghan is delighted to be presenting a screening of the film in the Mahon Point Omniplex in Cork, an area he knows well.
“I grew up in Mahon, so it’s a bit surreal to be going home to show a feature film,” he says. “But hopefully it will resonate with the audience there as much as it has at other screenings.”