Award hopes for film about life as a hermit

A Cork filmmaker whose work has been nominated for a prestigious British Film Award talks to COLETTE SHERIDAN
Award hopes for film about life as a hermit
In a still from Mike Hannon's The Cloud of Unknowing, Rodney Thompson walks on stepping stones across the bog to his cottage near Roundstone, Galway.

YOUGHAL-REARED filmmaker, Mike Hannon, will attend a red carpet award ceremony in the Mayfair Hotel in London on January 28 to see if his cinematic documentary, about a Cork-born hermit will scoop the ‘Best British/ Irish Short Film Award,’ at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards.

Mike, 40, who lives in Douglas with his doctor girlfriend and new baby girl, Cassie, is in good company. Other Irish nominees for the award are Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell as well as Martin McDonagh and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Mike’s film, The Cloud Of Unknowing, was nominated by IndieCork Film Festival which screened it last year. It won the Best Irish Short award at the festival.

Mike’s previous award-winning work includes the TV documentary My Beamish Boy, about the closure of the Beamish & Crawford brewery, and the observational film, Rats Island.

His meditative documentary, The Cloud of Unknowing, about Rodney Thompson (who is from the Cork bakery family, the Thompsons) looks at the harsh life of this former modern day hermit. For 30 years, Rodney dedicated his life to the mystical tradition of contemplative prayer, living in a small stone cottage near Roundstone, Connemara, with no electricity or running water. He has since retired from his hermitage and, now in his 70s, lives in assisted accommodation in Clifden run by Cluaid housing association.

It was while filming a project by the residents of the Cluaid community in Clifden that Mike came across Rodney and was inspired to make a film about his extraordinary life.

“The residents were involved in a community arts project, making a patchwork quilt,” says Mike. “I was asked to document it.

Mike Hannon, director of the short documentary The Cloud of Unknowing
Mike Hannon, director of the short documentary The Cloud of Unknowing

“Rodney had made a patch for the quilt depicting a little stone cottage with the mountains of Connemara in the background. This reflected his life as a hermit. He used to go into the village of Roundstone every Sunday to go to Mass and get supplies and have a bath in a friend’s house. He used to cook on a gas ring and had a gas-powered fridge.

“There was no road to his house. To get there, you had to walk on stepping stones across the bog. His gas cylinders were brought out to him on a boat. It was all quite Spartan.”

The stone cottage was bought by Rodney’s brother, the stone mason Ken Thompson and his wife. They were encouraged by a local to buy it for very little money.

While Ken wasn’t initially interested in buying a property in the west of Ireland, he became fascinated by the stone steps across the bog leading to the cottage and decided to buy it. It was to be used as a holiday home.

In the meantime, Rodney was living in London. He had been sent to boarding school there as a young boy. He later joined a seminary, intending to become a monk.

“But along the way, Rodney felt that being stuck in a monastery wasn’t for him. He was in his early 30s, hanging around in London, looking for some sort of vocation or calling. He hit on the idea of contemplative prayer, which involves living away from the rest of society, secluded like the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third century.”

Rodney’s mentor advised him to try out contemplative life on a temporary basis to see if it suited him. Ken offered his brother the use of his cottage.

“He ended up staying there for 30 years,” said the filmmaker.

In a still from Mike Hannon's The Cloud of Unknowing, Rodney Thompson sits at his table immersed in the ancient mystical practice of contemplative prayer.
In a still from Mike Hannon's The Cloud of Unknowing, Rodney Thompson sits at his table immersed in the ancient mystical practice of contemplative prayer.

For Mike, who studied psychology at UCC and went on to the Crawford where he was exposed to creative film-making, making a documentary about Rodney made sense.

“He was such an interesting subject for a documentary, with his way of being and his calmness. And he is such a nice person to be around. I wanted to do something about him and he agreed to it. Sometimes, people agree to be in a documentary because they find it flattering. But with Rodney, it wasn’t about his ego. I think he saw that I was interested and wanted to do something nice for me. I’m really appreciative of that.”

The short documentary runs to 18 and a half minutes.

“I’m interested in short film as a medium in its own right. But I always let the material dictate the length. I sat down and interviewed Rodney, talking to him for an hour and a half. But in the documentary, we barely get to see him at all. He’s only speaking for a couple of minutes. The rest of the shots are of the landscape and there are the sounds that were around him. The vistas in the area Rodney lived in are really stunning. It’s ringed by mountains and is close to the water.

“The weather there is incredible. It goes from being stunningly beautiful and in a breath, the clouds come over. The colours of this dramatic landscape and skyscape are amazing.

“There is also the sound. The only things you can hear in this remote place are the sounds of nature; the wind in the trees, the rustling of grass and rushes, bird song and waves from the sea. It’s an incredibly relaxing and immersive soundscape.”

Mike describes the documentary as “very sparse and very restrained.”

“It’s not so much a biography of how Rodney spent his life as a hermit, even though his circumstances are clear from watching it. It’s more about how he dedicated his life to contemplative prayer. It’s a contemplative documentary, quite slow-paced and relaxing, especially in this day and age where lots of things we see are very shouty. This is an introverted film.

“It gives the viewer the opportunity to experience in some sort of way the mental and psychological state that Rodney would have entered into when he was engaging in the practice of contemplative prayer which is a form of Christian mysticism.”

In Catholicism, there are three levels of prayer, explains Mike.

“There’s verbal prayer such as saying the ‘Our Father,’ there’s meditative prayer that involves imagining religious icons or reflecting on scenes in the Bible. Contemplative prayer is beyond words and images. It’s in this other realm of prayer where you try to make contact with God directly. This is what Rodney talks about in the film. The title of the film, The Cloud of Unknowing, refers to a middle English manual of contemplative prayer.”

In the documentary, Rodney describes the steps he takes to engage in contemplative prayer.

“I don’t want to make exaggerated claims for the film but there is the opportunity to experience some kind of an altered state of consciousness which is at odds with the normal way we watch a film. I would have experience of things like meditation and yoga so it’s very interesting for me as a film maker to explore this avenue, to try to explore an unconventional mindset using the language of cinema.”

Rodney was recognised as a hermit by the Bishop of Tuam.

“He is not the only hermit that has been recognised by the church in recent times,” said Mike.

Did Rodney experience loneliness in his hermitage?

“He did feel lonely sometimes and also was frightened at times, being on his own, in bad weather. However, one of the duties of a hermit is to welcome visitors to the hermitage.

“People would come and visit him because they wanted to pray with him or just hang out and chat with him or ask for advice. I think he provided a great service for the people around Roundstone. He would keep a prayer book with lists of people who wanted him to pray for them.”

Cork-born musician, Irene Buckley, has composed the music for the documentary.

IndieCork’s Mick Hannigan says: “With the beautiful cinematic style perfectly complementing the meditative content of the film, Mike Hannon’s The Cloud of Unknowing confirms cinema’s capacity to enable us to experience the world through other eyes. We’re thrilled for Mike to receive this important nomination in recognition of his immense talent and indeed, it reflects well on Irish filmmaking in general. IndieCork is the only Irish festival that nominated to the London Film Critics’ Circle and we will be hoping for the film to do well.”

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