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Non-Review Review: The Meeting

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

The Meeting is a fascinating story, told terrible.

The real-life events that inspired The Meeting are genuinely moving. Nine years after she was sexually assaulted walking home from the bus, Ailbhe Griffith convenes a meeting with the man who raped her. In a small room, Ailbhe Griffith and Martin Swan engage in a dialogue about those events, about how that evening shaped both of their lives, and about the scars that linger. It took remarkable courage for Griffith to put herself in that room, and she is clearly a thoughtful and fascinating subject. There is a great movie to be made of this story.

Unfortunately, The Meeting is not that great movie. There are various reasons why The Meeting doesn’t work. Some of those reasons are justifiable and understandable, defensible creative choices that simply don’t pay off in a satisfying manner and serve to undercut the narrative being constructed. However, some of those reasons are unjustifiable decisions that could never have worked even in abstract theory and which serve to turn The Meeting into a spectacularly ill-judged piece of cinema.

The eponymous meeting might have been a genuinely moving and affecting experience, but The Meeting is nothing short of a disaster.

There is a compelling story here. Ailbhe Griffith is a fascinating subject. She is articulate and insightful, and clearly has incredible resolve and strength of character. More than that, there are interesting and provocative questions suggested by The Meeting, particularly about notions of restorative justice and reconciliation. How does somebody move on from a horrific event? How do they seek closure? How do they find the strength to move on? Can there ever be a satisfying explanation for what happened? If there is, is knowing that explanation satisfying in any meaningful sense?

In concept, The Meeting feels like nuggets of great ideas for several different films crammed together to create a deeply frustrating misfire. Perhaps the most fundamental issue with The Meeting is the decision to stage the film as a drama rather than a documentary, because this creates a springboard to the film’s more serious problems. Director Alan Gilsenan took the bold stop of casting Ailbhe Griffith as herself, effectively asking the victim of a sexual assault to relive her confrontation with her rapist as a fictional adaptation of that meeting. The Meeting might work better as a documentary.

It’s certainly an interesting choice, one that calls to mind Clint Eastwood’s casting of 15:17 to Paris. In both cases, Eastwood and Gilsenan are casting real-life heroes to tell their own stories, in the place of professionally-trained actors. In theory, it’s a commendable nod to verisimilitude and an acknowledgment of ownership. The Meeting is Ailbhe Griffith’s story, and maybe there would be something crass in taking that from her. However, while Eastwood compensated from his cast’s lack of dramatic experience by surrounding them with great performers, Gilsenan is not so lucky.

The structure of The Meeting is not one that allows Gilsenan to disguise his lead actor’s lack of dramatic experience. The film is commendable in its refusal to exaggerate or sensationalise the eponymous encounter, with a lot of attention paid to the “ground rules” governing the dialogue and a lot of lip service paid to the courage and bravery of the participants. However, this means that large passages of The Meeting are extended monologues delivered by the characters at one another, rather than meaningful conversations between them.

Monologues are very tough, on both the actors delivering them and the directors filming them. They essentially require a performer to hold the audience’s attention for an extended period of time, and for a director to ensure that the audience never loses focus on what is being said. They also require a great deal of trust between performer and director. Long takes during extended monologues serve to signal that trust, a director believing that an actor’s performance is strong enough to hold the audience’s attention uninterrupted, a provocative stare down the camera lens.

Watching The Meeting, it becomes very clear very quickly that Gilsenan does not trust Griffith to deliver her monologues. The Meeting is edited to within an inch of its life, cuts and inserts feeling like they are designed to do anything but allow Griffith to hold the camera during her own story. To be fair to Gilsenan, it seems like the director might be trying to capture some vague abstract sense of how difficult it is to confront the reality of what happened to Ailbhe Griffith head-on, but the result is distracting. The camera seldom holds of Griffith, instead drifting into and out of focus.

Gilsenan seems to have captured inserts of everything in the small enclosed set in which The Meeting unfolds. The film never leaves the room until its closing moments, and Gilsenan seems more engaged with the set that has been constructed than the people who are occupying it. The camera urges the audience to take in every detail of the room; the burbon creams on the table, the tree in the window, the birds on the blue wall of the room, the clock ticking. Gilsenan’s camera drifts into and out of focus, as if the film is having trouble staying awake during the characters’ monologues.

This approach is deeply unsatisfying and frustrating on multiple levels, creating a sense that Gilsenan doesn’t have faith in The Meeting as a dramatic film of itself. However, what initially seems like a poor directorial decision eventually evolves into a spectacularly ill-judged creative choice. At one point, the rapist Martin Swan talks about how he was brain-damaged when he was apprehended and he still has to live with that. Given that Gilsenan keeps the camera moving into and out of focus, and occasionally films Griffith head-on from a position opposite her, it seems like Gilsenan is putting the audience in Swan’s perspective.

The Meeting is essentially a film in which a rape victim plays herself, filmed from the perspective of her rapist. It is terrible film-making, compounded by various narrative choices that the film makes with regards to how it approaches Griffith and Swan. The Meeting takes a great deal of time and effort to assure the audience that it has sympathy for both Griffith and Swan. The other characters in the meeting all take the time to talk about how brave both characters are, how much courage it must have taken to get both of them into this room.

It’s a fair enough point. After all, Martin Swan has chosen to be there of his own volition. Of course, what Swan did to Griffith was irreversible and horrific, but it is still tough for somebody to be confronted by their past misdeeds, let alone to have to acknowledge the harm that they caused to another human being. It is perfectly fair to concede that it was tough for Swan to choose to be there. However, The Meeting doesn’t just make the point. The film hammers it home repeatedly, particularly in its last twenty minutes or so.

The Meeting very earnestly believes that two lives have been shattered by this event. It speaks very well to Griffith’s character that she is willing to concede as much to Swan, after everything that he did. However, it also feels incredibly disingenuous and false. It is an attempt at bold insight and provocation, asking the audience to feel sympathy for somebody who did something horrific while putting them in the same room as the person to whom they did that horrific thing. It is the same trite faux-insightful nonsense that Gilsenan attempted with Unless.

There is indeed a discussion needed about how society treats criminals, even those who do horrific things. However, The Meeting seems to operate from a starting position where victims of sexual assault already get fair and equitable treatment. This is patently not the case, as even a cursory glimpse at the conviction statistics would suggest. More than that, The Meeting was screened in the midst of a media storm around an on-going sexual assault case in Belfast that underscores just how many hurdles exist for the victims of sexual assault in naming those who assaulted them. So it seems spectacularly ill-judged.

The Meeting premiered at a point in time where the #MeToo movement was demonstrating just how effectively society had silenced and suppressed the opinions and stories of women who had been subjected to horrific sexual violence. With all the confidence of an ill-informed armchair pundit, The Meeting boldly sticks up its hand and dares to ask, “Sure, the violence inflicted on women is horrible, but what about the men who inflict violence upon women?” It is the laziest possible attempt at insight and balance in this situation, daring the audience to feel compassion for (and sit in the perspective of) a convicted rapist.

There is something so facile in all of this, akin to the upper-class angst of Unless, the belief that compassion is an abstract concept that somehow exists independent of any tangible forces at work in the world. Is there a conversation to be had about how society treats sex offenders and the hurdles they face reintegrating into society? Of course. Does any of that mean that there is any equivalence to be found in the challenges that face the victims of such assault? No. Despite being based on Griffith’s harrowing real-life experience, there is something very abstract and academic about The Meeting.

Again, there is a kernel of an interesting idea here. The reconciliatory justice suggested by The Meeting is a fascinating concept, particularly for audiences and popular culture very much engaged with punitive justice. Is it possible for victim and perpetrator to understand one another? It is a tough question, but a necessary one. However, a rape case is not the right vehicle for this exploration, given the systemic and institutional barriers that often prevent victims from even receiving acknowledgement of the crime committed upon them. Reconciliation needs even the abstract concept of equivalence, and it does not exist here.

The Meeting is a compelling and affecting true story told in the most clumsy and ill-judged manner imaginable.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

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