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The Orient Excess


Festival de Cine Internacional de Ourense

It is such a pleasure to hear the Irish language spoken fluently as it is throughout “Fairytale of Kathmandu.” Cathal Ó Searcaigh (pronounced Ca-HULL O’Sharkey) is a well-known Irish-language poet. I have one of his books acquired in the mistaken belief it was a bilingual edition, and on the flyleaf a review by Maire Mhac an tSaoi is quoted: “Ó Searcaigh is Mozartian, following the Gaelic classical convention of the dramatic first person, which disinfects the ‘I,’ moving easily from traditional metres to free verse and back, distilling the intense emotions of same-sex love into a lyric form that has not, I think, been equaled since the days of the Greek anthology.”

Mr. Ó Searcaigh has always been openly gay, which is no mean feat in Ireland, even now. Director Neasa Ní Chianáin (pronounced Nisha Ni KYEE-nan) first met Mr. Ó Searcaigh as a pre-teen; he was a decade older, and in her voice-over narration, she describes at some length the influence he cast over and the awe in which he was held by herself and her circle. They remained friends through adulthood, so when Mr. Ó Searcaigh suggested Ms. Ní Chianáin accompany him on his annual summer trip to Nepal for a film, she accepted. No doubt she also received a fat funding subsidy for working in the Irish language.

What happened on the trip to Nepal was a surprise to Ms. Ní Chianáin, and has been heavily debated in Ireland since this film premiered on RTE there last year. Since all discussion of the movie I can find mentions it up front, and since I can think of no way to discuss the film’s impact without doing the same, here goes: Mr. Ó Searcaigh’s time in Nepal was partially spent writing poetry, but mainly in picking up and then grooming teenage Nepali boys via expensive presents or paying school fees before sleeping with them. This was done in collusion with two local men, whose businesses Mr. Ó Searcaigh had funded and whose families are dependent on his financial support. (The book of Mr. Ó Searcaigh’s I have is dedicated to one of them.)

Now, sex tourism is nothing new; and the willingness of Westerners to travel where younger people are more easily sexually exploited is well documented. But Ms. Ní Chianáin’s inability to comprehend what was going on was almost more shocking for the audience at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival screening which I attended. In fact, she seems only to faced facts once the manager of Mr. Ó Searcaigh’s hotel made a few cutting comments. She then stayed behind in Kathmandu to interview some of the young men Mr. Ó Searcaigh spent time with. While Ms. Ní Chianáin emphasizes they are all over the Nepali age of consent, which is 16, we also learn that homosexuality is taboo in Nepal and most of the teenagers were utterly unaware such things even existed before meeting Mr. Ó Searcaigh.

The whole film is hugely upsetting and unsettling. It’s not just that this is a close-up portrait of how young people can be groomed into feeling obligated into performing sexual acts for older, more powerful men. It’s not just an unpleasant insight into how Western tourism in poorer countries can seem indistinguishable from imperialism, no matter how small the scale. It’s also that, through Ms. Ní Chianáin’s willful inaction, she colluded in the same behavior her voice-over purports to abhor. She didn’t confront Mr. Ó Searcaigh about his behavior until they were both back in Ireland. And then they, who both spoke with such pride about being native Irish speakers, have their big argument in English. Since this is the only time they speak this language to each other, it is a mechanism for them to avoid speaking the real truth, although impossible to guess whether this is consciously done.

I left the screening feeling complicit in the exploitation of the young men, and horrified at our power – as Ms. Ní Chianáin demonstrates – of denying things we don’t want to see. I have several teenage nieces and nephews; the thought of something like this happening to them makes my skin crawl. But rather than build our sympathy for the young men, Ms. Ní Chianáin furiously tries to have us sympathize with her instead. One can wholly understand how she would want to distance herself from Mr. Ó Searcaigh; but with all respect, she’s not the victim here. This narcissistic attempt to divert responsibility from herself leaves the viewer with no way to disinfect themselves from the sorry subject of her film. It’s selfish in the extreme.

One final thought – in light of the subject matter, for Ms. Ní Chianáin to use the word “Fairytale” in the title was cruelly insensitive.


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