Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Irish Times, 24 August 2002

Taking the road less traveled
Irish Timess, 24 August 2002

The programmes Manchán and Ruán Magan produce for TG4 are definitely not 'holiday shows'. They tell Olivia Kelly about their brotherly approach to life and their love of other cultures

There's something very comforting and quite nest-like about being inside Manchán Magan's little straw house on the edge of Lough Lene in Co Westmeath. The busy provincial town of Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is no more than 15 miles away, but it may as well be a million miles or a lifetime for all the influence it has on this rural retreat.
Manchán built his straw house himself with the help of his older brother Ruán and a few friends. It's been standing for almost five years now and, unlike the abode of the first little pig, it looks sturdy enough to last at least another five.
The walls are made from 120 bales, stacked together "just like lego" and sandwiched between a thin concrete foundation and a timber roof. It took just two days to put the bale bricks together and another four to five months to persuade the lime and sand plaster to stick to the straw. It's basic, but it has most of the necessary home comforts; running water, a stove, even electricity. Regrettably, there is no bathroom or toilet. "Storms kept blowing it away in the winter, so in the end I just let it go," Manchán says.
Manchán is incredibly self-sufficient. He installed his own plumbing and electricity, learning as he went from a library book. He bakes bread, gets his vegetables from an organic farmer up the road and, every so often, ventures as far as the local shop to buy milk. He admits to being "a bit of a hermit", only going to Mullingar once every 10 days or so - and rarely any further. He seems entirely content in his own peaceful world. He doesn't get lonely, he simply doesn't have it in him.
It's hard to imagine this man tearing across the deserts of the Middle East in a black BMW with the top down, sitting in on a pow-wow with a Native American tribe in Idaho or providing a running commentary on the graphic, bloody slaughter of a goat in Bedouin territories. But that's the sort of thing he likes to do. Manchán and his brother Ruán make travel documentaries, filmed in the most remote corners of the earth, seeking out cultures and people, "who live beyond our own daily experience" and bringing them "as Gaeilge" to TG4 viewers.
The Magan brothers have travelled a total of 28,000 miles across India, the Middle East, South America, North America and Europe to make their Global Nomad series of documentaries. Next month they set off for China to make their next batch of programmes, which are due to be aired on TG4 in January 2003.
Their association with the station dates back to 1996, but the origins of their epic journeys began some years earlier. Manchán, now 32 caught the travelling bug at 19. He had just completed his first year of an Irish and history degree at UCD and found himself disillusioned, both with college and life in the Western world. "Nothing of the Western world attracted me, so I worked in a supermarket for six months to make some money, then I headed off to Africa on the back of a truck," Manchán says.
He spent six months travelling through Morocco and the Sahara to Tanzania and Nairobi before returning to finish his degree. He didn't hang around more than a few months before heading off again, this time to South America to spend another six months in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia.
"I ended up managing this organic health farm on the border of Ecuador and Peru," he says. "They were building stunning houses out of bamboo and that was the first place I heard about straw-bale housing," he explains.
Manchán continued his nomadic existence for the next couple of years, eventually ending up in India, where he took a house in the Himalayas.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Ruán had also decided to take a less than conventional path in life. The older brother by two years, Ruán had left college in his first year to start training as an assistant director in the film industry. He worked his way up through the grades of the industry, eventually becoming location manager for Neil Jordan's 1996 film Michael Collins. He then made the transition from film to television and decided it was time to track down his brother.
"TG4 had just started up and it crossed my mind that we could do some kind of video diary on the life Manchán was living in India - and Manchán very kindly let me into his life," says Ruán. "I wrote this wonderfully naive letter to TG4, who were still a couple of months from their first broadcast and they gave us €14,000 to make two half-hour programmes."
The two-man crew, Manchán presenting and Ruán operating the digital camera, headed across northern India for a month. The results were better than expected and the video diaries were repackaged as travel documentaries.
The brothers had never before discussed working with each other, but Ruán says, he knew they shared broadly the same perspectives on life. "I'm definitely more commercial and mainstream and Manchán is more left of field, but we both share this idea that in the Western world we seem to have blinkered ourselves to the value of life and what it really means to be alive."
The programmes, Ruán stresses, are "definitely not holiday shows". As if to prove the point, the Magans were arrested 14 times during the making of the series. Manchán says he has been arrested "hundreds of times" over the course of his travels. The brothers seem to see brushes with the law as no more than an occupational hazard. "It's not all like Midnight Express," Magan says. "Usually they just want you to sit and talk with them. They're very bored and a Westerner is fascinating."
The Magans are preparing to embark on their Chinese adventure. This three-month trip, covering 6,000 miles, will be "their most epic journey yet," they say, encompassing everything from the Shanghai stock markets to the sterilisation clinics of the Gobi desert. "I want to find out what daily life is like for the Chinese," Manchán says.
The search for a greater understanding of life is the principal tenet behind all their travel shows. "It's us learning about the world and we just happened to bring a video with us and document it," Ruán says. "It's about discovering the world with a non-Western attitude," Manchán continues, "an attempt to see things through fresh eyes."
Manchán claims to have no antipathy towards the developed world, in fact he considers it "wonderful". His ideal is to combine the best of East and West. Back in his Ecuadorian-style straw house with its printed Indian sheets layering the ceiling, there are touches of the modern world. A PC, with Internet connection, sits in the darkest end of the house, painted a discreet blue to fit in with the woodwork.
Sturdy and homely as Manchán's little house is, it's not long for this world. The brothers plan to set it alight, the week before their new series goes on air. Again they have managed to draw East and West together by likening their bale-burning to a Tibetan sky burial - a ritual in which, Ruán explains, the body of a deceased loved one is "hacked into small bird-sized pieces" and left for the vultures to take skywards. A fitting end, Manchán thinks.
"I'm really fond of this house; the burning will be a wonderful ceremony."
© The Irish Times