Another view of Fairytale in Kathmandu
A hero's tragic flaw is one which is self-inflicted. The poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh welcomes a film crew into his life in Nepal, and the resulting damning documentary, Fairytale of Kathmandu, has become defamatory evidence
By Dermod Moore
It's a honey trap of a film; it starts off lyrical and soft, elegiac for the most part, a lilting portrayal of a popular charismatic figure and the obvious heartfelt love that surrounds him in Kathmandu. In the months that she is there with him, however, the director, his friend and neighbour Neasa Ní Chianán, also records the frequent visits to his hotel by young men, who often stay the night, and become his friend for a few days or a few weeks, and sometimes longer.
We hear some boys talking and joking about the many, many young friends he has, laughing about the numbers. Unaccountably, the director doesn't ask Ó Searcaigh about them at the time, nor talk directly to the youths herself. It wasn't until the cynical, jaded hotel manager talked about Western exploitation that her “eyes were opened”. (One has to remember that this same hotelier had been happy to have Ó Searcaigh as a regular guest for years.)
Then, and only after Ó Searcaigh had left Kathmandu, she puts the word out, decides to interview some of the youths (all 16 or over) with a counsellor. They tell tales of confusion, hurt feelings, shame about feeling that they had been “bought”, and anger. Which is, after all, exactly what she was looking for – the Nepalese are obliging to Westerners, whom they see as gods. Most of all, what comes across from them are stories of lost innocence.
Innocence is the theme of the film, a collective Fall from Eden. Although Ní Chianán portrays herself as having been innocent, only realising, with shame, that the subject of her biography had been busy having a sex life throughout her stay in Nepal, right in front of her eyes, it is not mentioned that she had already spent a winter filming him for a previous documentary: The Poet, The Shopkeeper and the Babu (2006). If I am to believe that her statements in the film are authentic, and not disingenuous, then she is guilty of letting her own freely admitted hero worship of Ó Searcaigh get in the way of what this documentary should have been: a piercing and fearless exploration of the man's voracious sexual appetites, and how he squares it with his exquisitely sensitive nature. However, perhaps because she was nursing her second child during the shoot, and feeling very maternal and protective, which she freely admits, she avoided grasping the thorny issue of his sexual exploits until he had left the country. So, crucially, he is not present to hear his accusers, to respond or to account for himself.
This is not to say that it is right that he should leave so many ex-lovers unhappy, nor that he apparently bedded some of them under false pretences; but I am not convinced that an adolescent's loss of innocence (over the age of consent) is necessarily the sin that Ní Chianán makes it out to be. It is a mother's desire that children are protected for as long as possible from hurt and pain; it is only natural. But it is also important to recognise that, at some stage, that one's children will make mistakes, will have sex. They will grow up. Boys become men and this often disturbing and confusing. To interpret the experience of a teenager having sex with an older man for the first time as de facto abuse, and to see him only as a victim, is potentially disempowering,
shaming, and even castrating. Seeing herself as a rescuer, setting up a trust fund for Ó Searcaigh's “victims” so they can receive psychosexual counselling is, in my professional opinion, as a working psychotherapist, inappropriate and potentially unhelpful. The hurt that Ní Chianán discovered in the boys she interviewed was relational, in that they didn't like their experiences with Ó Searcaigh. Their complaints should have been brought directly to the man himself, then and there, so we, the audience, could understand for ourselves the interpersonal dynamics, could judge for ourselves what had happened between them.
It took them two winters in Nepal to finally address the elephant in the room: the man who put cruising into the Irish language (ag crúsáil) was cruising, all the time. It's there in the documentary, you can see him strutting through the streets of Kathmandu, late at night, his boys following behind him, cock of the walk. Some of the youths in his life are timid and shy; although it is impossible to know whether the pained awkwardness we see in one youth in particular, being treated to ice cream, is the result of being with Ó Searcaigh or having a Western film crew focused on his every facial expression.
Lest anyone think that we Westerners are bringing our evil ways to the innocent East, there are cruising areas in Kathmandu, and one – a small cruising park in the centre of the city – has between 100-200 guys visiting every night. There are trained outreach workers to spread the safe sex message, and a drop in centre for gay people - with a staff of 23. There is even an annual gay pride march.
Desire makes fools of us all, and when it expresses itself outside of a relationship of equal status and common interests, which is what many people (especially women) like to think sex should be about, then it brings its own contradictions, pleasures and pains. Ní Chianán really doesn't understand this kind of sex, but, most unprofessionally, didn't seem to want to understand. The first lad in the documentary who spends the night with Ó Searcaigh, a 17-year-old called Ram, seems at ease with him the next day and Ní Chianán's voice over seems mystified as to why this might be: “they were worlds apart.”
Her curiosity should have been expressed to the poet, then and there. But then, we'd have had a very different kind of film: adult, intelligent and non-exploitative, instead of a pained but nevertheless vindictive response to her own disappointment, that her hero has feet of clay.
In Fairytale of Kathmandu, we have a man innocent enough to believe that his friend would not become his nemesis, threaten him with criminal proceedings using the film as evidence, and refuse to supply him with a copy of the film so he could defend himself properly once it had begun being shown and marketed. His very openness about sexual matters would have meant that he could have explained himself to his accusers on film, long before it had gotten to that stage. Ó Searcaigh's “hamartia”, or tragic flaw, is that he was too trusting.
Apparently, Ní Chianán had an unfilmed conversation with the poet after she had completed the film, and she asked him to consider therapy, to reform himself. According to her, they parted on good terms, with a hug. To judge by the way she writes and speaks about him now, it seems his subsequent refusal to reform was interpreted by her as evidence that he was an unapologetic recidivist child abuser.
The answer may be far more complex and uncomfortable: this man, like many men and indeed some women, has a form of sexuality that is transgressive, and seeks to push the limits of desire as far as he can.
At its root may indeed be a broken heart, as Ní Chianán alludes to in the film, and a desire to avoid the painful feelings of being dependent, of being possessive and obsessive. But it may also be driven by delight in pleasure, a love of beauty and gentleness, and a lack of shame about sex. He certainly needs to address the issues raised in the film about exploitation, and come to terms with the implications of being a rich Westerner in a poor country, and how that is a perilous path. He most definitely needs to face his accusers. But it occurred to me, as I was watching a few of the lads later on in the film, who were laughing genially and expressively at his every word, but not really getting his literary references, that they were humouring the old codger. Exploitation can be a two way street, especially when it comes to sex.
This film is biased. Indeed, it is worse, it is prejudicial and punitive. Cathal Ó Searcaigh's side of the story, in all its uncomfortable complexity has yet to be told.
(This was previously published in Hot Press.)