Writer-director CIARAN CASSIDY’s ever expanding collection of prestigious awards is testament to his standing in the world of documentary making. His latest film ‘The Last Days of Peter Bergmann’ could see him nominated for next year’s Academy Awards, but he tells SEAMUS ENRIGHT, he’s not dashing out to Patsy Boyle’s to get measured for a tux just yet.
“What makes a story worth telling? When you sit down to make a documentary you don’t set off with an idea critically decided by what you feel. You end up listening to what’s been said and are guided by it. Quite often it’s the story within the story that’s most interesting.”
The idiom ‘the devil is in the detail’ is never truer than when it comes to the craft of story telling. So why then is a documentary by a Cavan writer, director and producer, with so little essential detail gripping film audiences worldwide?
‘The Last Days of Peter Bergmann’ most recently won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Nashville Film Festival, meaning now that the film by Ciaran Cassidy from Keadue, Cavan Town could qualify for the Oscars in 2015.
At the time, the true story of the death of ‘Peter Bergmann’, who arrived in Sligo town in the summer of 2009, stirred interest and confusion in equal measure. On June 12, 2009, the man boarded a bus from Derry to Sligo, checking into a centrally located hotel that evening under the name Peter Bergmann, with an address in Vienna.
With the aid of CCTV and eyewitness testimony, Ciaran’s documentary pieces together this man’s final movements. It reveals a haunting portrait of a man who over three days, apparently went to great lengths to dispose of his personal belongings and wash away any traces of his identity. Upon the rocks at Rosses Point his body, dressed in a navy t-shirt, swimming togs and underpants, was discovered, washed up.
When the gardaí later went to identify him they discovered that his name was not ‘Peter Bergmann’; nor did the address in Vienna exist.
“It was interesting that here we had a man who was resolute in leaving no trace of himself behind, going to great lengths to dispose of his personal items. He had little or no other human contact, but when we got there and started speaking with people it was amazing because we had may 10 or 13 people able to identify him. For someone who didn’t want anybody to know about him, a lot of people remembered him,” Ciaran says.
“I had read about it when it came up in the Coroner’s Court and I knew the story would be fairly raw, as stories like that are afterwards. So I cut it out and I have this amazing drawer called ‘Ideas Drawer’ and it went in there for about a year. I left it and then contacted the guard involved in the investigation, more to see what his reaction was.
“He remarked that it was one of the most affecting cases he had worked on after 30 years in the force. But he wasn’t the only one. Lots of people remembered him. The lady who saw him on the beach, the taxi driver who he asked to recommend to him a nice place to swim. One woman interviewed, that I don’t think made it to the final cut, went home and wrote a short story on the man after she saw him, before she became aware of the circumstances of the man’s presence on the beach.
“It’s the equivalent of coming to Cavan and staying in the Farnham Arms Hotel, who didn’t talk to anyone but was seen around town and then is found dead.”
Ciaran, a graduate of economics and politics can’t pinpoint where exactly his grá for storytelling came from, only that he honed it over years of experience, first working in student journalism in college at Trinity, before taking a job as a sports reporter with TV3, part of which took him to cover the Champion’s League final in 2005 between AC Milan and Liverpool. For the past decade though, he has worked as a documentary producer for RTÉ Radio One, a job which, on occasion, has brought him back to Cavan as he created documentaries on the St Clare’s orphanage fire in ‘The orphans that never were’, and on the death of Jamie Farrelly Maughan in ‘Harmony Heights’.
“The two documentaries I did in Cavan came fairly early on in my career. With documentaries you have to look at whether people will be moved by what they hear or see.
“I came to RTÉ and obviously, being from Cavan, what happened there with the orphanage fire resonates. All that was in the RTÉ archives before that on it was one interview with Marian Finucane. So I felt personally it was important for something else to be done.”
To cover the death of 14-year-old Jamie Farrelly Maughan, Ciaran’s documentary travelled from Cavan Town, where he spoke to her family and friends, and to Cassalinda, a small town in the centre of Brazil in an attempt to track down Weldo Cavalcante, the man who served 18-months imprisonment for the statutory rape of the Cavan teenager, and to find out what happened to her in Harmony Heights and why her body lay undiscovered for six-days after.
“I was in school with Larry Burke the solicitor, and I saw him outside talking I think, after the Coroner’s Court. I remembers seeing it on the news and there had just been huge question marks left there hanging over the whole thing.
“It was only when we got there and started speaking did we discover the side of things that in the days up until Jamie’s body was discovered that much of the garda and media attention had instead been focussed on searches for a large black cat that had been seen in the region.
“With Bergmann too there were a lot of obvious questions. A natural curiosity to it.
“The key to any documentary usually hangs on a question. It’s never a straight forward profile or as immediately straight forward as it may seem. There’s always an ulcer inducing question of why? As documentary makers we have to ask these questions, and get some answers too.”
Ciaran’s career has seen him make the smooth transition through a variety of mediums, with much success. From his acclaimed four-part documentary series ‘Blood and Ink’, to his documentaries ‘The Diary of Leanne Wolfe’ and ‘The Ballad of Patrick Folan’, as well as ‘The Runners’, about a boy who, with the help of a man, escaped from an Irish industrial school, which won the 2010 ‘Prix Europa’.
He is also notched up a hattrick of Gold Medals (2008, 2009, 2010) at the New York Radio Festival, while his first short film ‘Collaboration Horizontal’ was shown at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, and won an award at the 2011 Palm Springs International Short Film Festival.
Most recently however, his documentary on ‘The Last Days of Peter Bergmann’ was one of just fourteen short documentaries selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival in the US.
“Seeing our film at the Sundance is probably one of the most exciting moments of my life.
My name on the screen there and hundreds of people sitting watching it. It takes your breath away.
“As a team we knew we had a good story and we set ourselves a target of what we were aiming for. We worked all summer on it, but once it was done and out there we pulled back a bit.
“I remember, perhaps after I was drunk, mentioning to somebody ‘We’re making this film and we’re hoping to enter it to Sundance’, only to wake up the next day and think, oh God, what have I said?
“I was in Cavan at the time with my parents when I got the email saying it had been chosen. I mean, from 8,000 entries just 66 are chosen to be shown, less than one per cent. It was just incredible.”
The Bergmann documentary recently won the IFTA for Best Short and has been selected to screen in Paris at the Panorama of the Golden Nights, which is organised by the French Academy of Cinema - Académie des César.
The film is set to have its UK premiere this weekend at Sundance London, but it’s the news that it won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Nashville Film Festival which could yet provide enrty to the biggest prize open to the documentary to date - a place on the red carpet at next year’s Oscars - and Ciaran with it.
Ciaran though is modest about his expectations, telling the Celt: “We’re not all running down to Patsy Boyle to get fitted for our tuxes just yet. We’re taking it one step at a time.
There’s plenty more to get done between now and then.”
Part of that includes a follow up to the Bergmann documentary by Ciaran and his team, not to mention work on his first screenplay, which is in development with the Irish Film Board and Blinder Films.
Called La Domestique and centring on drugs in cycling in the late ‘90s, the film has received development funding and a second draft of the screen play is nearing completion.
However, with Bergmann, the questions there, and those left unanswered still persist.
“One of the things that struck me when I read the Coroner’s Report was he went up there and he thought he could just disappear.
“Whatever he was doing he left a far bigger imprint than he could have imagined.”