“Tell me your story?” A daunting, almost nebulous, question frames Treasa O’Brien’s quasi-documentary, Town of Strangers.
How can someone sum up their life, let alone make a story of their experiences. Life does not always fit into the structures of a story, despite what dinner-time riddles and big-screen biopics would have us believe. Ordinary, workaday living is less glamorous, more complicated, and harder to squeeze into three acts.
The people that audition to take part in O’Brien’s film are wildly different. They are hippies, refugees, dancers, brides-to-be, gadabouts. Lured in by some cosmic happenstance to Gort, County Galway.
The film that these people are auditioning for is not the film that we are watching. What we are seeing is closer to O’Brien’s backstage “making of” feature.
Town of Strangers might be a documentary about making a documentary. Or maybe it’s a fiction film, or a character study, or a musical, or a kitchen-sink drama, or an Atlantic take on Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams? Whatever Town of Strangers is – whatever it is not – it’s fascinating.
The effect of the film’s first handful of sequences creates an audio-visual collage of Gort. We begin by cutting around the Gort Show, looking at livestock, food stalls, fairground rides and so on. It’s all noisy hustle and bustle. The camera does not settle on anything. The look here is that of covering shots, not wanting to honein on any one aspect of the scene.
The intercutting of Gort, the surrounding countryside and the crowds all begin to feel overwhelming. So when we are finally presented with a talking head, they command our absolute attention.
The stories that O’Brien captures are tinged with tragic circumstances. Parents are separated from their children, families are divided by geography or finances, the would-be actors struggle with regret, loneliness, and addiction.
Aspects of the interviews are dramatised by O’Brien to varying degrees of completion and polish. It’s through these restaged dreams, footage of daily life and intimate observation of the participants that O’Brien’s film begins to take a strange shape.
Scenes from the subjects’ lives begin to bleed into O’Brien’s own existence. A shot of a woman boiling coffee on a cooker is mirrored by O’Brien doing the same in her van. More instances of match-cutting later in the film give the impression that through hearing other people’s stories O’Brien can begin to tell a story of her own, or at least gain experience by proxy.
I won’t go into the various characters that show up for O’Brien’s audition in too much detail as it would rob the film of much of its impact. What I will say is that all of the auditionees have more in common than they might think. It seems odd that people living in what would appear to be a small community can live such different lives. And yet their hopes, desires, and dreams are broadly the same.
We see something of the human condition here on the screen, in these stories of wildly varied lives that somehow manage to end up in the same place, feeling the same way, but not knowing that their cosmic neighbours are living that experience as well.
The style of the film helps with this. There is a conscious effort on the part of the subjects to tell their story as best they can. Sometimes the camera seems to disappear, and we see the rawest unfiltered emotions come through.
As one man relates troubles with his teenage son he fumbles with a cigarette and for a moment, all of his bravado and stubbornness fades away. We see him searching not just for the right words, or for his lighter, but for the right emotion to see him through this moment of naked confrontation. With a little hum this momentary lapse is brushed aside and we go back to business as usual, but we can’t forget what we saw. When humans put on an act, they sometimes act human.
Town of Strangers is full of scenes like this – intersections of storytelling and reality that reveal the subjects in a way that the film’s restaged dream sequences and slice-of-life photography never quite manage.
Again, I won’t go into too many of these but one sequence that really struck me features a father separated from his wife and children who are living in Afghanistan. O’Brien asks him what scares him in life?”
“People,” he answers. Here’s someone who has fled death and still, he lives in fear of those around him.
A blessing and curse of assimilation into a community is that eventually people do not notice you. The auditionees are strangers to the wider world and as such their feelings, needs, wants and desires become invisible.
The film does not feature introductory titles for its participants and so we only know them by their stories. Keen watchers will hear a name from off-camera now and then, but these people by design remain nameless to us.
Again, O’Brien’s process seems to brush against her “real” life. We see her sitting on the step of her campervan as the radio plays an interview about making Town of Strangers.
The interviewer begins to probe O’Brien about the film. Will she finish it? Is it worthwhile? We are hearing a manifestation of the filmmaker’s own anxieties. She is now as much a subject of her own documentary as any of the other people featured so far.
The inherent tragedy in O’Brien’s film is that the auditionees could potentially find the companionship and a sense of belonging in the company of each other. Such an outcome would be a contrivance fitting of a story, and Town of Strangers, full of stories as it is, is not that kind of film.
The realisation that life is not as simple as a story is the film’s ultimate disappointment and its greatest triumph.