Nuala O’Faolain shook Ireland and captivated the world with her forthright memoir Are You Somebody? A new documentary seeks to present a full picture of the woman behind the writing.
For the millions who were astonished by Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (1996), filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan have put together an important new documentary, which serves as a vital companion to O’Faolain’s best-selling memoir.
Simply entitled Nuala, the film has earned raves from The Hollywood Reporter and The Irish Times, and is currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit to critical acclaim, winning, amongst other prizes, the Most Popular International Documentary Award at the Vancouver Film Festival. (Its next outing is at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Film Festival at the end of April).
In Are You Somebody? published when she was in her late 50s, O’Faolain laid bare her battles with the demons that have conquered many lesser Irish souls: repressive family life, alcohol, strict gender roles. (“It was like someone breaking glass,” is how Colm Toibin describes the experience of reading Are You Somebody?)
In Nuala, a more rounded sense of O’Faolain the person emerges, with her great friend, radio host Marian Finucane, serving as a guide throughout the film, and Farrelly and O’Callaghan expertly setting the broader stage.
All three are uniquely positioned to make this documentary, having worked in Irish journalism for decades. After teaming up with Finucane on RTÉ radio in the 1980s, Farrelly and O’Callaghan made a series of successful documentaries, including Voices from the Grave, about the Troubles, which nabbed Best Documentary at the 2011 Irish Film and Television Awards.
In Nuala, while Finucane takes us on the journey of O’Faolain’s life, Farrelly and O’Callaghan build on the narrative with family photos, archival footage and other well-chosen artifacts that simply tell their own story. Particularly memorable are black and white stills of a lithe, luminous O’Faolain in her twenties, and later, uncomfortable video footage of O’Faolain in Brooklyn barely tolerating the daughter of her final boyfriend, a lawyer she met online. (“I didn’t say one word on Match.com about wanting to meet an eight year-old,” we hear O’Faolain complain.)
The comments and remembrances — from writers, editors and friends including O’Faolain’s three sisters, who are the true gems of this documentary – provide a deeper understanding not only of Nuala, but also of the country and era that so defined her.
O’Faolain’s own voice also adds a sense of poignancy, with Farrelly and O’Callaghan employing audio recordings from Are You Somebody?, as well as television and radio recordings.
Nuala efficiently chronicles the known facts of O’Faolain’s complicated, at times, grim life: her glitzy, philandering father; her mother’s retreat into alcoholism; and her coming of age as a bold, sexually experimental girl who was eventually shipped off to boarding school, which proved a crucial turning point in her life.
Her many affairs with men also get an airing, as does her surprisingly stable 15-year domestic partnership with feminist journalist Nell McCafferty. Though ultimately, as the film shows, Nuala’s dismissal of the sexual aspect of their relationship was devastating to Nell and nothing short of “cruel,” as one observer puts it.
As the documentary makes clear, the literary success was welcome, but did not completely banish the cranky, complicated person often referred to as “the old Nuala.”
She moved to the New York following the success of her memoir, and was thrilled at the prospect of reinventing herself in the vibrant city. And yet, not for the first time, she spend an inordinate amount of time seeming to sabotage what could have been a fulfilling relationship with her last boyfriend.
O’Faolain would admit that “old insecurities” were getting the best of her. Yet, rather than flee, as she might have in the past, she works to rebuild this relationship.
Not long after, however, comes the cancer diagnosis, and the fateful radio interview with Finucane on April 12, 2008, in which O’Faolain, with her trademark brutal honesty, shared her thoughts and feeling on her impending death.
The interview caused such reverberations in Ireland, “its ripples still beat against the tide,” as one observer put it.
O’Faolain’s decline was swift, she died within weeks of the interview, and many tears are shed in Nuala as friends look back on her final days.
Nuala provides many of the answers as to what made Nuala O’Faolain unique – her brilliance and her passion for life, her courage, and all the things that made her, at various times, the voice of a nation and a pain in the neck. And makes us mourn her loss all the more.
Watch a trailer for Nuala: