Two Suitcases is a community film project for teens living with illness. It’s a liberating experience for them, reports Helen O’Callaghan

What got them was the injustice. The two young women were standing in the grounds of Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) –— for 250 years a retirement home for former and invalided British Army soldiers. They were looking at two graveyards. One was the officers’ burial ground. The other, opposite in Bully’s Acre, was for soldiers of the lowest military rank.

The girls — both members of CanTeen, the support group for youngsters who’ve had cancer — were so struck by the inequalities of the rigid social hierarchy following these soldiers even into death that they created a film around it.

Protest Soldiers is one of seven short films that will be installed throughout the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA, which is housed at RHK) during a public promenade day on June 25. The films were created under the auspices of Two Suitcases, a community film project for teens living with illness. “40 young people aged 13 to 22 worked in one way or another with this film project. Mentored by professional artists, they took on all the key roles — creating, scripting, directing, acting, sound, lighting,” says Two Suitcases project coordinator Emma Eager.

Engaging with RHK’s history and with the experience of the veteran soldiers who lived there just felt like the right artistic call, says Eager. “RHK wasn’t a hospital in the traditional sense. The veteran soldiers saw the hospital less as a clinical institution, though they were certainly institutionalised, and more as their home — it was known by locals as the ‘old man’s house’.” This, says Eager, resonated with the young people, many of whom have spent long spells hospitalised and also convalescing at home. “It brought up ideas of hospitality, institutionalisation and wellbeing.” And, adds Eager, you can’t ignore that we’re currently in a decade of commemoration. “We thought it would be nice to develop a parallel story to the discourse around this decade.” At the project’s outset, the young participants went on an interactive museum trail, visiting eight locations key to RHK history. This walk inspired Protest Soldiers. It also inspired Ghost Soldier I and Ghost Soldier II, two films created by Ruarc Scally and James Dennedy, who were struck by the story of the Kilmainham ghost — a dead soldier said to search the grounds for a medal stolen from him by other veterans.

Meanwhile Taking Blood, created by Lisa Comer and Sharon Cooney, grew out of their interest in what soldiers in the infirmary endured in previous centuries when there was no sterilisation of medical instruments and little infection control. The silent black and white film with Scott Joplin track takes place beside a medical tent during an unspecified war. Lisa plays a soldier refusing to get bloods done, as a nurse (Sharon) hovers and then chases her with a syringe. “It’s really clever because it draws on past wartime experiences of the veteran soldiers at RHK, while also drawing attention to a hospital procedure hated by young people – having bloods taken,” says Eager.

“It gives an idea of what other generations had to go through when they had to grin and bear un-sanitised conditions,” says Lisa, 20, who was diagnosed with leukaemia as a baby. This meant six months of chemo, one dose of total body irradiation and a bone marrow transplant at 22 months. At nine, Lisa got a brain tumour, leading to a further year of chemo and six months of radiotherapy. Participating in Two Suitcases, she says, “was really good because it made us feel normal, not sick kids having a little bit of fun. It felt like [we] are in control of what we want to come up with”.

Stephen O’Driscoll, a budding actor from Cork with mild epilepsy, has participated in the Two Suitcases project since the first film in 2012. He has worked on four films altogether and was a volunteer mentor on the current project, helping to create and starring in Garden of Complaints. The inspiration was the invalided veteran soldiers residing at RHK after the Great War. Stephen, along with Eoghan McConnell and CanTeen members Dylan Joynt and Jamie Pim, re-imagined conversations the veterans might have as they took air in the gardens, essentially reliving past war glories in a funny tongue-in-cheek piece.

“We were given these costumes,” says Stephen. “An old soldier’s uniform and a suave, gentleman’s old-codger-look kind of costume. We put them on and we just went with it. We were these old codgers sitting around on benches and talking about burnt toast, as a kind of metaphor for life.” Being involved with the project – and with Helium Arts, the children’s arts and health organisation, which produces Two Suitcases — has helped Stephen realise people with conditions can do things. “It has broadened my horizons and opened my thoughts.”

The film showcase is open to the public at IMMA on Saturday, June 25 (1-5pm). Visitors will receive a trail map to seek out film installations throughout the grounds. The promenade day is free – book through Eventbrite. More info at www.helium.ie.


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