There are three things I have taken away from The Queen of Ireland, the documentary about the legendary Irish drag queen, and accidental activist, Panti Bliss/Rory O’Neill: The first is that Panti uses the same hairspray as I do (Squeeee!), the second is that I really want to go clubbing in Tokyo very soon, and the third is that Conor Horgan is a bloody good film maker.
It’s odd, and yet enriching, to watch a movie about one of your heroes, and also about a time of your life in which you were so invested, and to see that time and the same hopes and fears you felt about the marriage referendum expressed on the silver screen, by people you have met and laughed with.
Through Conor Horgan’s mastery of the interviews he conducts, and the raw footage of Panti’s early days as part of Candy-Panti in Tokyo, we get to see Rory as a human being, and not the 9ft tall blonde bombshell that rallied a community to do something about their lot in life.
That touching scene where Rory describes how he breathed life into Panti, and she breathed more life into him, is the essence of what this documentary is about – life and happiness and the expression of desires, fears, ambition, and what it means to be an icon, a son, a brother and an ordinary man living an extraordinary life. We get to meet Rory’s family and friends. We get to listen to those who witnessed the birth of Panti, and the death of Pantigate.
Horgan eloquently takes us on a journey in such detail that we can see the pride that Rory’s family have for him, for how he dealt with an HIV diagnosis and simply said “the show must go on.” We travel with him from when he started out as a young Ballinrobe boy in woollen jumpers and welly boots, and made his way to the stages of Dublin’s drag circuit in gold sequin dresses – dressed as a “Disney villain” as he describes in one scene.
It’s no secret that I am a fan of Panti/Rory, and this film is a perfect companion to his book, “Woman In The Making” as it gives us a more objective look at the marriage referendum, how Ireland has tackled homophobia, and just how far the community in the South has come, and how hard they have fought to get there.
There is a lovely shot of Panti walking arm in arm with his parents, down a little road in Ballinrobe, towards the marquee in which he performs, bringing the story to a beautiful and heartwarming conclusion. Bravo to all involved. It is clearly a work that has been decades in the making.
The love and passion Horgan has for Panti, and her craft, is evident in the framing of the movie. It never once portrays Rory as anything other than human – a man with nothing to lose – and yet flabbergasted by the support he has gotten from the community, and the world at large.
[You can see The Queen of Ireland at the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in Eustace Street, Dublin 2, until 19 November]