Endless Sunshine on a Cloudy Day, John Connors's shattering new documentary on the life and death of Irish social media Jade McCann, will open this year's Craic Fest online.
Editor's Note: This column first appeared in the February 17 edition of the Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.
Connors also appears as an actor in Colin Broderick's new film A Bend In The River, which features a star turn by former professional boxer John Duddy.
But this time – because of the health concerns - the New York-based festival is going online. Running from March 4 through 7, just $23 will get you 23 new films, including introductions and talkbacks featuring actors, directors, and others.
It's an unbelievable value for a festival featuring US premieres of new Irish films. First up is the opening night screening of actor and director John Connors's Endless Sunshine on a Cloudy Day, which tells the story of the 24-year-old Irish social media star Jade McCann's long and ultimately losing battle with cancer.
Tragically Jade's father Anthony was the first to be diagnosed in the family with a different but no less deadly form of cancer himself, so the pair face their battle together, father and daughter, fighting spiritedly.
Jade, who passed away in October 2019, was in possession of a life force so strong that it leaps from the camera. Whip-smart, funny, beautiful, and as terrified as anyone facing into her diagnoses must be, the Wicklow born influencer hides nothing from her followers or from John Connors cameras, making Endless Sunshine on a Cloudy Day, which was filmed over 18 months, one of the most shattering films about the desperate struggle to survive ever committed to screen.
But don't think that this elegantly made film is a relentless downer. Like her father Anthony, Jade is a bit of a pugilist. She takes no nonsense, she sees through every insincerity and she cracks jokes at herself and others in that Irish way. It's no wonder her social media posts took off early, she was a star in the making.
But things took an unexpected turn. First, her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and then two months later, Jade was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, herself. The timing and proximity are a cold reminder of just how common a cancer diagnosis actually is and how heavily it can impact any family.
“It coincided with my grandfather dying of cancer,” Connors tells the Voice. “So I was kind of going through the two of them at the same time, because Jade was a close friend of mine and she was helping me pull up my bootstraps and not kind of breakdown from my grandfather.”
Jade was fascinated by documentary filmmaking and that's how the pair were initially introduced, Connors explains. “She originally approached me from seeing my documentaries. When we suggested we make one about her experience it gave her a new lease of life," he says.
“Literally like, she felt she had nothing to live for the way she was, she felt like there was nothing else going on. And I soon saw that the documentary was able to give her new purpose. Then her father got involved and he ended up being a great character, so you see their relationship unfold in front of your eyes.”
Making a film about two family members facing serious cancer diagnoses at the same time was no picnic, he freely admits. “It was a really tough experience to be honest working on this, because again you're taking tough decisions, like what are we doing, and when do we stop filming here? And when I suggested we stop she said no she wanted to continue on. She said I want to do more filming. It gave her a purpose and she gave us one, you know?”
Social media brought Jade to the public first as a beauty blogger, but then she delved into relationship experiences and her life experiences, and when the diagnoses came, her follower count increased and decreased as her story continued.
Social media brought her to the public eye and the way that her followers went up and down as different parts of her story were released ends up saying a lot about the society we're living in, Connors says.
“I definitely have experienced the negative side of social media myself,” says Connors. “But they got a lot of hate online too. It wasn't a plan to get into that originally but it kept reoccurring. People would just say what they liked to her without thought of repercussion because it's just another keyboard warrior. It was shocking. People were literally saying to her, look I gave a tenner towards your cancer fundraiser. Like why are you still not getting an operation?”
On the day Jade died, she lost thousands of followers. “I was just like blown away by it. So I thought it was very important from a societal point of view to show that. It really shows the harm and toxicity of social media today and we've no idea about it yet. I mean, people are living a different life on social media and it's completely extreme. So I think we're going to find out in years to come the real mental health effect.”
Connors's film focuses on the grief of losing a life too soon – or at all - and that's what makes it so especially hard-hitting. Jade is brimming with creative talent and possibility and it breaks your heart to see it ended before its time. “When I look back on my life I can't believe how fast it's gone. I wish I could tell my younger self not to care what other people thought,” she tells the camera.
In A Bend In The River, the new feature by writer and director Colin Broderick, Connors, 31, stars alongside Derry boxer turned actor John Duddy, 41. A returning emigrant's tale, Duddy plays Matt Donnelly, a writer suffering from a creative block who takes a trip back to the land of his youth for the first time in 26 years for inspiration.
As it often goes in these returning emigrant tales, everything has changed and nothing has. The stresses that once drove Donnelly out are quite unaltered: conflict, oppression, minor chord theocracy, lovelessness, small-town gossip, and swaggering machismo. Duddy's face tells you how much this all once cost him and is costing him still.
Connors plays Paudie, a developmentally disabled sidekick to the local hood Declan Hughes (Brendan Broderick in a sulfurous turn as a paramilitary villain). Paudie is the welcoming heart of the community who is soon slapped into silence by crueler, more calculating locals. Connors reminds you in every scene why he's become a star, bringing a grace and simplicity to each scene that spears your heart and his stung silences can end up saying more than other people's speeches.
“John Duddy was one of my heroes growing up,” says Connors. “It was brilliant to work with him. And I don't think I've ever met a nicer human being really, he's the most genuine dude.”
Connors is right, A Bend In The River is Duddy's film. He comes to life in every scene as a star in the making in this meditative expulsion from Eden tale that is so beautifully shot the County Down landscape emerges as his co-star.
A small reception is planned at the Fitzpatrick Grand Central hotel on closing night with Duddy, Connors, and Broderick, as well as Festival Director Mulligan in attendance. For tickets to the Craic Fest screenings, visit thecraicfest.com or call the festival office at 917-373-6735.