image of article about Egress in Irish Examiner

Article in The Irish Examiner by Richard Fitzpatrick

One of the striking things she discovered was that communication was often at a subterranean level.

“TOWARDS the start of E.gress, a short film about the experience of dementia, there is an audio recording of an elderly man in a care centre grasping for a memory. His voice is soft and warm, inflected with a Cork accent.

“That’s annoying,” he says. “I thought I had it there now. What’s that his name was again? He’s a beautiful singer, beautiful. Blast it, I can’t think. ’Tis the head, it’s a curse; ’tis very hard. Oh, God, what’s that his name is? Good God, and he’s a local or a man that was popular there lately. I can’t think of his name, now; I can’t even think of his songs. I’m all uptight. I can’t relax.”

The man is one of 18 people suffering with dementia that West Cork-based visual artist Marie Brett and musician Kevin O’Shanahan, focused on in the film. Brett says she used objects — loaned from their families — like old or recent family photographs or, say, an item of clothing to spark a conversation, which sometimes didn’t involve words, she says.

One of the striking things she discovered was that communication was often at a subterranean level. “I knew that some people might not be able to speak or their language might shift in and out of being understandable, but what was really interesting was that there was almost an instinctive, subliminal means of communication.

“I worked mainly one-to-one with people and found that if ever there was a day I wasn’t at ease — or anxious or nervous or stressed; even though I’m used to hiding that kind of emotion — it would ooze out and transfer straight to the person who was living with dementia. It cut through words, language and body language. It was so subtle.”

The film was a year in the making. It is shot through with a soundtrack that is at times jarring, sometimes soothing. Some of the subjects speak to camera. Photographs, disembodied voices and footage of nursing home corridors and living rooms are weaved in. The structure is unconventional for a documentary film, intentionally so says Brett.

“I’ve taken a very neutral starting point. I’m not looking to disseminate facts. I’m looking to locate a viewer right in a visceral experience, as if they’re experiencing dementia themselves. I altered a lot of footage, and was trying to reach through language a fog or a haze so sometimes you could see things clearly like if you’re driving at night sometimes and a fog comes down and you’re in a haze. It’s quite an exciting space, and then you might see the outline of a tree, which will come into clarity and then disappear again.

“I was looking for that in the film —having layers and veils. Some people describe it as distortion. Sometimes I put four layers of footage one on top of the other. It was my imagined description of dementia. Whereas a documentary-maker might be more factual and less about positioning the viewer in an unknown, grey space where they have to make their own mind up.”

Although Brett stresses she was keen not to ram home any messages in the film, feedback from previous outings, for example during a recent six-week residency at IMMA in Dublin, show that the film hasn’t stopped viewers from drawing their own interpretations from it.

“It was really interesting that some people spoke about the light aspects, or the joy of the work that, as they put it, the person with dementia loses their voice, and they’re very often spoken about, that they become confined to being an object that somebody like myself might make a work about, but they were saying the person is very much embedded in the film, and that has given them power. They have found their voice.”

E.gress will screen from 9.30am-6.30pm on Thursday at the Alzheimer Society of Ireland’s Bessboro Day Care Centre, Blackrock, Cork. See

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