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The History Student: The Making of a Movie by Graham Jones

Writing.ie | Magazine | Stage & Screen

By Graham Jones

I recently finished making an indie movie called ‘The History Student’ which is especially poignant for me. Only partly because it’s a movie that was meant to be made back in the nineties and for years appeared destined to never be made at all. The reason it wasn’t produced back then, aside from all the other well-known obstacles that make indie filmmaking challenging at the best of times, was that I had difficulty writing the screenplay.

One colleague remarked at the time that it was a particularly difficult story. Another said it showed all the hallmarks of something that should be left alone and would ‘come back to me’ later. In hindsight, their feedback was probably a response to my demeanour, not merely the various drafts. I had become obsessed with getting the screenplay just right, was marching around claiming to be suffering from ‘Second Album Syndrome’ and was living in the shadow of my first movie which had been released theatrically a year earlier. This screenplay was not something I could let go of, I insisted – it was important, not just to me but also the world and even seemed worth trying to write as a novel! 

After a few years I finally did abandon the project, went to Tokyo instead and made a completely different movie. I then made several other movies, yet in the back of my mind never felt able to completely shake ‘The History Student’. I had been unable to make it work, but knew it was special and that was all there was to it.

Many other things happened to me over the years, of course, not just a variety of different film projects. I became a father, then became a father again and then again. My youngest son is half-Irish, half-Polish. The Polish community in the Republic of Ireland comprised 2.7% of the population according to 2011 census figures, making it the largest minority in the country. So I suppose it’s unsurprising that many Irish/Polish families like ours have sprouted up during the 21st century.

graham_jones smallMy son Aidan hadn’t seen his hermetic grandfather in Poland for many years, so we traipsed out to his forest hut in Włocławek over the summer. I thought it would be really nice to document the experience on camera, for when he’s older. Within days I found myself making a film not only about his childhood, but also sort of about my own and actually one that others might relate to as well. It became more of a drama than pure documentary. I’m not sure how impressed Aidan was, to be honest, because he doesn’t have much interest in acting and had to be paid in Lego – but I think he makes a nice protagonist for other Irish/Polish children who are growing up on this island. 

However, what surprised me even more than discovering we were suddenly making a fully-fledged movie when I had initially only been intending to shoot personal footage, was that with every day’s rushes it looked and sounded more and more like my cast-aside screenplay from the nineties. Just as my colleague once predicted, it had eventually returned to me. It had returned, perhaps when I had finally let it go and certainly when I least expected it.

‘The History Student’ tells the story of a seven-year-old boy from Ireland, who is spending a rural summer holiday in his mother’s native Poland and on strict instructions to speak only that country’s language. When he finds the words to ask where aliens fit into nature, it stirs memories of her own childhood when the answer was clear. Performed entirely in Polish (not a language this dad is particularly fluent in) it was truly a story I had to tell – but a story that made its own decision as to when, where and with whom it should be told. 

It came to me in the forest, where my son began to discover the animal kingdom and I finally understood the reasons why I needed to tell a story of this kind in the first place. It came to me with a majesty it definitely would have lacked if I had forced it in my youth. Apparently, I had to become a parent before I could truly appreciate being a child.

(c) Graham Jones

Watch ‘The History Student’ here (it’s beautiful)…

Variety Magazine describes Graham Jones as “a very talented director”. Born 1973 in Dublin, he attended film school in London during the early nineties where his research on indie cinema was published as a book by the British Film Institute. Shortly afterwards, his debut movie ‘How To Cheat In The Leaving Certificate’ caused controversy upon its national theatrical release and was condemned by the Junior Minister for Education. It marked the beginning of a career in which Jones would explore difficult subjects in movies like ‘Fudge 44’, ‘The Green Marker Scare’, ‘Davin’, ‘The Randomers’ and ‘The History Student”.

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