Terry McMahon with iconic Nigerian actor Yakubu Muhammad on the set of The Kiss of Death.

Mullingar man’s new African film to première at Galway Film Fleadh

When Mullingar film director Terry McMahon travelled to Kenya to work on his newest film, ‘The Kiss of Death’, which is has its world première this month at the Galway Film Fleadh, he witnessed security on a level he’d never before seen on a film set.

“Despite it being an extraordinary adventure with remarkable people – who really blew my mind – we also had to have three people with machine guns on set to protect us,” Terry revealed this week.

“So that’s the reality of filming in Kanu in Northern Nigeria, the nature of filming something like this.”

The “something like this” is a film that is likely to give rise to some controversy. Shot entirely in Nigeria, it focuses on the predicament an idealistic but naïve teacher finds himself in after a girl collapses in his class and there are no female teachers to help her.

It premières at The Palas Cinema at 6pm on July 12.

Typical of McMahon, when he commits to something, he throws his all at it – and this project, which took him to Africa six or seven times, took its toll: “It cost me so much financially, emotionally psychologically, physically,” he says, while adding that at the same time, it was rewarding creatively.

It was, he continues, a difficult project: “I made two firms beforehand that were difficult, but this went to a different level altogether.”

He was stonewalled in his attempts to obtain funding here at home to help make the film – pleas for aid not merely being refused but ignored.

“But somehow, against all the odds, this little film that has no right to exist; this very strange, strange, strange film has somehow forced itself into birth and now it’s going to be in Galway.

“The story is simple,” he says of the film. “Nigeria has a population of 245 million people. It has 287 languages so you can imagine the absolute chaos. But part of a really powerful education idea is to bring those in the north or the south coast to the east and to the west, and vice versa, so that they educate each other in unity. They educate each other in the idea of a unified Nigeria.

“The issue is that you have massive religious and ideological and political differences, but it’s an attempt to override cause through human engagement, which is a deeply novel aspiration.”

It’s against this background that the hero of ‘The Kiss of Death’ moves from southern Nigeria to the north, fired with the passion to teach, and then what amounts to a clash of cultures emerges.

The cast was a mix of young and experienced actors, among them Nigerian actor, director, producer, singer and script writer Yakubu Mohammed, “arguably”, says McMahon, “the best actor I’ve ever worked with”.

“He just blew my mind.”

McMahon loved working with the people of Nigeria: “They’re incredibly complex, passionate, funny, intelligent, remarkable people and I wanted to capture that on camera,” he says.

Finally, in Galway, the world gets its first chance to see what he wanted to say, and he’s delighted that the Film and Television Academy are also to do a screening in September/October. The film festival provides an opportunity for the industry to see how the audience reacts to it – and from McMahon’s viewpoint, a hoped-for first step towards commercial distribution.

What excites him is that he’s had success in Galway before: the audiences there have “got” his work – and approval from a festival audience matters: “Film festival audiences are incredible.

They are people who utterly adore film, and they kind of hand over their life for a week, once a year, to completely submerge themselves in newly-discovered pieces of cinema.”

He still remembers that feeling in the room when they showed their appreciation of his ‘Charlie Casanova’, which went on to win the Galway Film Fleadh. “To get that standing ovation is amazing.”

There was a similar buzz five years later when he returned to Galway with ‘Patrick’s Day’.

“But that was 10 years ago,” he says, pained that in that interim period, despite every single attempt to try to get a film made in Ireland, he was constantly stopped – he has spoken in the past about his feeling of having been “cancelled” here. Now that he is back, he is keen to see how audiences react to this particular film, which is different not just in being an African film, but in being, as he repeats, “strange”.

“It’s a very strange film. It’s an incredibly strange film. There’s something… there’s some undercurrent underneath that we haven’t yet fully understood.”

“Charlie Casanova was about dehumanism; Patrick’s Day was about gaslighting; this film is about fundamentalism – and the idea of fundamentalism within the construct of how it’s weaponised in relation to religion and how something as beautiful as a spiritual enterprise is often manipulated and turned into something ugly by people that want to take advantage of vulnerability; take advantage of your decency and your kindness.

“That’s a very complex and controversial conversation to be having, particularly in the time that we’re living in now.

“So you don’t know what the undercurrent is going to be with an audience; you don’t know how it will affect them.”