What Was Lost: A Review of the 2017 film, “The Long Wet Grass,” produced by Nancy Manocherian, Anna Nugent, and Séamus Scanlon
If you are familiar with the history of the “Disappeared” during Ireland’s Troubles, then the ending of the beautiful short film The Long Wet Grass is not going to surprise you, but the journey of watching is a poignant, often metaphoric, labor of love and pathos. The story of two people, Victor and Woman, caught in the nets of history and choices, entered publication as a vivid flash fiction story by Seamus Scanlon, published in print and online by Fish Publishing. By persisting in revisiting the characters and theme — first, in a short play, and now in a short film with collaborating screen writer and actor Anna Nugent, this enhanced version has expanded the story’s original reach by exploring the emotions of the victim as well as the gunman. Paul Nugent and Anna Nugent appeared in the play as well, so this project is satisfyingly as much an actor’s journey as a writer’s.
For the violent Victor, the only named character of this tragic story, the goal seems simple: to do “the job” — to kill Woman with his gun. In the film, Paul Nugent delivered with just the right touch of diffidence. Victor experiences an ambivalent compassion, if not mercy, which conveys a more nuanced reality about the villains of the Disappeared. To sustain its tension, the film asks us to explore questions with the putative hero: Although he has agreed to do a self-damning, murderous job, could it be that what he remembers about his love for the woman coupled with the woman’s reasons for living might prevent a tragedy and redeem a piece of his heart? Could this compassion rescue him from the horrifying cliché of “only following orders?” Maybe not, as he concludes coldly, “The love song of killing cannot be undone.”
In The Long Wet Grass, Woman is played cunningly by co-screen writer Anna Nugent. She tries every trick in the book to secure her life, evoking everything from childhood memories to a siren’s dance. Her performance is all about change and creation. Can the allegories of love and prayer and memory transcend Victor’s job? That is another interesting question posed against the film’s tautly evolving doom.
To try to save her own life, Woman seeks out Victor’s humanity. That he isn’t irredeemably cruel sustains the suspense and the hope that it might end another way. We hang on every meagre thread of compassion, seeking signs: He does not bind her when he imprisons her in the trunk of his car. He allows her to dance, as a jailer might allow a dying man a cigarette. A memory of their childhood caring competes briefly with the mission. As the camera takes a long receding shot, they remain together in the long wet grass, so he hasn’t left her. Will he? Will at least one promise be kept? And yet… The questions posed by the film about ideology and humanity remain with me long after I’ve watched it.
Séamus Scanlon evokes his native Galway in the opening lines of the story, and the lush emerald landscape of wet grass near water in County Mayo is almost a third character in the drama. The setting is captured to great emotional advantage by both the Sri Lankan-born Galway resident, Director of Photography Lakshika Serasinhe, a relative newcomer with a great gift for story-telling, and by UK based Director, Justin Davey. They honor the ebb and flow of life and consciousness with expertly-paced cuts and three poignant soft-focus segments recalling the characters’ childhood meetings to contradict the horror of the moment. The children who play Young Woman and Young Victor, Aine Thompson and Patrick Hyland, respectively, are well-cast for their silent parts, offering facial expressions and gestures that carry the weight of memories and complicated feelings.
Threading together the story of these two lives is the requisitely haunting music composed and performed by Academy Award and Grammy-winning Czech composer, Markéta Irglová, whose three songs make a perfect match in tone and story movement for these invitingly green, yet sinister long wet grasses. The water flows. The song continues, killing or no. The production collaboration has made the invisible vivid.
Scanlon’s play was produced earlier in the U.S. as part of The McGowan Trilogy, at the cell, a New York City theatre organization, during Origin’s First Irish Theatre Festival. The published play The McGowan Trilogy (Arlen House) is available at The Drama Bookshop in NYC and online. This collaboration has served the project well. The cell’s Founding Artistic Director, Nancy Manocherian, has also produced the film along with Anna Nugent and Séamus Scanlon in association with Fox & Owl Productions, Victor Productions, and Gregory de la Haba.
Of his ambitions as a writer, Séamus Scanlon confessed in a 2014 interview with Mike Joyce, editor of literaryorphans.org: “I am only trying to understand myself.” Despite his joking pretensions in that same interview that he has “No literary ambitions,” we are lucky to experience the progress of Scanlon’s understanding as he works the idea of his story through these genres, learning as much as he teaches. The film, The Long Wet Grass, screened in 8 (international) festivals during 2017, premiered in NYC last October, and for 2018 is scheduled so far for the Austin Spotlight Film Festival (January) and the Shebeen Flick Irish Film Festival in Berlin (March), with, one hopes, more screenings to come this year.