Interview: Aoife Kelleher, Director

David Monaghan sits down with Aoife Kelleher, director of One Million Dubliners and Growing Up Gay, to talk about making a film centred on life and loss, and being a voice for young LGBTQ+ people.[br]
Clarification: An earlier version of this article was titled "'Dying is an art, like everything else' - Aoife Kelleher, Director". This quote is in relation to a Sylvia Plath poem, and was not mentioned at any point by Aoife Kelleher during her interview. We would like to apologise for any confusion caused.
Aoife Kelleher did not have an early start in film-making. In fact, she did not have any connections to the industry when she decided to study Film and Broadcasting in DIT. It wasn’t until she spent a few hours on the set of her friend Anna Rodgers' student film that she abandoned her inclinations to become an English or Law major. “I just fell in love with the idea of being a director,” she says. “That was that, really.”From there, Kelleher went on to produce student films, one of which focused on a funeral home on Aungier Street. The inspiration for this project was born from Aoife’s fascination with the idea that there are people who live and work in the presence of the dead. “I was watching a lot of Six Feet Under at the time and reading the poems and short stories of Thomas Lynch, an Irish-American writer and undertaker from Michigan.” Ten years later, Kelleher would return to this subject matter, as well as the themes of life, loss and death, in her documentary One Million Dubliners. The film centres not only on those who are buried in Glasnevin, but the contemporary lives and experiences of people who live and work in the cemetery. In doing this, Aoife suggests, the film-makers “emphasise the fact that Glasnevin is a place where history is constantly being made.”Although a troubling setting for many, any implication that it is a morbid one is met with protestation from the director. She says, “It didn't actually occur to me that it was remotely morbid to make a film about Glasnevin! It's a beautiful location full of incredible people – living and dead – and wonderful stories. It's one of those special places in Ireland where history seems tangibly present.” Among the subjects featured in the film are two women who work in a florist shop. In a humorous aside, they tell viewers that Michael Collins’ grave receives more attention that De Valera’s. Shane Mac Thomáis, Glasnevin Cemetery’s enthusiastic tour guide, also features prominently. Unfortunately, he passed away during the film’s editing.“Shane Mac Thomáis was really the central figure in One Million Dubliners,” reflects Aoife. “He was so funny and fascinating and the cemetery clearly meant so much to him. He was also incredibly helpful in the making of the film – I think it became a very personal project for him.”Kelleher spoke to Shane’s family and the staff at Glasnevin Cemetery before it was decided to continue making the project. “I think that One Million Dubliners has become an important part of Shane’s legacy. His death was such a tragedy but it's something to know that he and his work continue to affect people.”
"It didn't actually occur to me that it was remotely morbid to make a film about Glasnevin! It's a beautiful location full of incredible people – living and dead – and wonderful stories."
Growing Up Gay was her first professionally-produced documentary. Broadcast by RTÉ, it aired in two parts from the 19th April, 2010, and would go on to become a seminal work not only for those in the LGBTQ+ community, but also for Irish citizens as a whole. The documentary focuses on the lives of LGBTQ+ youth from all corners of the country. The idea for the series came as a result of a meeting with Aoife’s friend Michael Barron, who had just established BeLonG To, the national organisation for LGBTQ+ young people, “He invited me in to see the youth groups and it was clear that many of the young people were having a very difficult time, whether at home, at school or in their communities.” She also said that there, “seemed to be a general view in Ireland in 2005 that there was no such thing as an LGBT teenager but BeLonG To had commissioned research that found that most young people realised they were LGBT at age twelve. It felt so important for these young people to be given a chance to tell their stories.”The documentary aired in pre-referendum Ireland, seventeen years after homosexuality had been decriminalised in Irish law. The national broadcaster, RTÉ, caused controversy for suggesting the documentary was intended for mature audiences only. “Both the producer, Anna Rodgers, and I experienced some negative reactions to the fact that we were making a documentary about LGBT young people. Some people felt that the very fact of asking young people to discuss issues like sexuality and gender was inherently exploitative. Others were concerned that the fact that these young people were coming out on television would mean that they would be stigmatised for the rest of their lives. Even though we didn't feel that there should be any stigma around a young person's sexuality or gender identity, we took the concerns raised very seriously.” Aoife and Anna then liaised with the contributors and their families, and all the young participants met with a counsellor regularly to ensure they were confident in being filmed for the documentary.While it is uncertain if she would be met with difficulty were she to make the documentary today, it is undeniable the progress that has been made in relation to LGBTQ+ rights in the country. “The lives of LGBTQ+ young people [have] changed immeasurably between 2005, when I first submitted the proposal for Growing Up Gay to RTÉ, and 2015 when the Marriage Equality referendum and Gender Recognition Act were passed. Just over ten years ago, there was a very limited acknowledgement that young people were even aware of their sexuality or gender identity. Now, LGBTQ+ young people are speaking out confidently in the media, in politics, in their schools and they have both legal and social frameworks to combat any discrimination they experience.”She praises the work of BeLonG To, in particular: “[They] have done so much to change the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ young people and the importance of their work can't be overstated.”Having tackled life, loss and death, and the experiences of growing up as a young LGBTQ+ person Ireland, Kelleher is now turning her sights to what may be a bone of contention for some: the role religion and faith play in Irish life. She says, “It's not entirely dissimilar to One Million Dubliners but this film is about Knock in Co. Mayo.”She is also working on a documentary for RTÉ One with Brendan Courtney. “We've only just started but I think it's going to be very special.”