Arts Festival

Fly-fishing and how to let go

FRIENDS come and go, but chemo friends stay for the long haul. Kate (Gemma-Leah Devereux) and Tracy (Siobhan Cullen) on a fly-fishing jaunt in ‘The Bright Side’, an Irish film directed by Ruth Meehan, on this year’s European Film Festival South Africa. Photograph courtesy

WHEN LIFE KICKS you hard in the proverbial teeth and you don’t know which way to turn, who do you become? This is an idea developed by Ruth Meehan, in The Bright Side. More than an essay on breast cancer, this is a sassy, sarky and oft sweet tale about surviving at all costs. It’s a hard-hitting, but generally soft-landing story about friendship and the power of being you, in the face of unknown devils that might lurk around the next corner. It is available online and without cost, as part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, which runs from 14 until 24 October 2021. Bookings are open.

When you first meet Kate (Gemma-Leah Devereux), she’s auditioning for a toilet paper ad. This brash, self-deprecating and candidly funny comedian carries herself and her bruised history and troubling present with the kind of bravado that any performer must. Particularly one within the unforgiving specialisation of stand-up comedy.

You instinctively like her for her no-holds-barred kind of approach. And then the plot emerges, where in a few understated moments and some wildly disturbing ones, a picture of her private life is painted. And it is a mixture of fury and accident that gives her the best and worst luck of her life. Evoking on a level, My Little Sister, which also features on this year’s festival, this is a work about medical intervention and grave illness. It also evokes a wild scene in Miloš Forman’s 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where medical responsibility is tossed to the wind in favour of recreational drugs. But, like Jason Reitman’s 2007 film Juno, this film absolutely sparkles with candour.

Friends may come and go, but chemo friends go the journey with you, even or especially with all the horrors that come with it – particularly the stuff that your doctor doesn’t really tell you about till it happens – and issues like the camaraderie that develops in the chemotherapy ward and the mastectomy vestibule are beautifully handled with an understated but strong sense of drama.

With stand-out performances by Barbara Brennan as Róisín and Siobhán Cullen as Tracy, the surreal atmosphere of the medical platform where you may lose all your hair and half your weight, is well represented. Kate struggles through all of this, burdened, as she is with suicidal temptations and too much adrenaline that breeds addiction, but she holds on, like a warrior, giving voices to her two breasts, in a gesture that sits between desperately crass humour and substantial peace made with fate.

There are many cliched messages wrapped into this story’s folds, from the make-up session for those who have no eyebrows, to crystal-holding believers in positive thought, to the belief in the business of synapses which wire together, fire together and even to blasphemy and issues of faith. Ultimately, however, the picture presented is that anyone can get cancer. Even people with other problems.

This story of fly-fishing and a pharmacist who cares, of laughter that can turn very quickly into great gasping sobs, and of the realisation that you may be leaving your most precious person, is a well-directed, astutely edited work, which is an easy watch and a beautiful one. It’s also very powerfully scripted, with some of the major triggers put into the mouth of a child, Kate’s niece Alex. Bring tissues. Lots of them.

The Bright Side is directed by Ruth Meehan and is performed by a cast headed by Barbara Brennan, Derbhle Crotty, Siobhán Cullen, Gemma-Leah Devereux, Karen Egan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Kevin McGahern, Elizabeth Moynihan and Claire O’Donovan. Written by Ruth Meehan and Jean Pasley, it is produced by Tony Deegan and features creative input by Stephen Rennicks (music), JJ Rolfe (cinematography), Colin Campbell (editing), Amy Rowan (casting) and Mark Kelly (production design). It is part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 14-24 October 2021. Bookings are now open.

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