Ciaran Cassidy, The Sundance Kid
Ciaran Cassidy, The Sundance Kid
The Last Days of Peter Bergmann is the story of a man who came to Sligo and attempted to quietly disappear without a trace. It was one of fourteen short documentaries selected for the Sundance Film Festival and now it has won the top prize at the Melbourne International Film Festival. We caught up with the director Ciaran Cassidy earlier this year.
On June 12th 2009, a man boarded a bus from Derry to Sligo. That evening he checked into Sligo City Hotel under the name Peter Bergmann. He gave an address in Vienna. Over the next three days, he left the hotel each day with a purple plastic bag and returned in the evenings without the conspicuous bag. The Gardaí would later surmise that he was discarding his belongings throughout the city, although nothing was ever recovered. On June 13th, he posted a letter. On June 14th, he asked a taxi driver for a recommendation on a nice place to swim. The taxi driver suggested Rosses Point. On June 15th, the man’s body was washed up on the rocks in Rosses Point, his belongings scattered across the beach. When the Gardaí later went to positively identify him, they discovered that his name was not Peter Bergmann. The address in Vienna did not exist.
The Last Days of Peter Bergmann pieces together the final movements of this man with the aid of CCTV and eyewitness testimony. Directed by Ciaran Cassidy, the film is a haunting portrait of a man resolute in his aim to leave no trace behind. The film was one of fourteen short documentaries selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The director of numerous acclaimed documentaries for the RTÉ Documentary on One strand, including the award-winning The Runners, this is his second foray into short documentaries.
Cassidy stumbled across the story a few years ago. “I read about it when it came up in the Coroner’s Court and I knew the story would be fairly raw, as stories like that would be afterwards. So I cut it out and I have this amazing drawer called ‘Ideas Drawer’ and it went in there. I left it for a year and then I contacted the guard who was involved in the investigation and I just wanted to see what his reaction to it was, because I found that story really haunting.” The guard remarked that it was one of the most affecting cases he had worked on after thirty years in the force. “I knew then that it wasn’t just me. People who had been involved in the case wondered about who this guy was and what his back story was.”
Despite having all the trappings of a film noir, the story picked up little attention in the national media. “It’s funny – some stories in Ireland are recycled 24/7 and then there’s other stuff that people don’t touch whatsoever. And there are some pretty incredible stories out there.”
After his initial enquiries, Cassidy embarked on what would turn into a two-year process of research, securing funding and production. The documentary relies significantly on CCTV footage, of which there was thirty-two hours, to track the man’s movements over his final days. The CCTV images capture the man leaving his hotel and wandering the streets of Sligo, each time with a purple bag in tow. “If he had just had a Dunnes Stores bag, you know it wouldn’t have been as conspicuous. He stands out in these very badly-shot, grainy CCTV images in bus stations and on streets. People in cinemas can spot him straight away. We didn’t even have to worry about close-ups or anything like that, because they just knew to look for the bag,” Cassidy noted.
Similarly, the documentary benefits from the testimony of a number of eyewitnesses who saw the man in his final days. Bus drivers, hotel employees and various passers-by all provide testimony and relay anecdotes of their interactions with the man. Was it difficult to get people to speak on camera? “It wasn’t that it wasn’t hard. But it was surprising that everyone agreed to do it and it was surprising that everybody seemed quite touched by his story. One of the things people always wonder about doing documentaries is why do people agree to speak and I think in this case it may have been less of a burden for people, because he wasn’t local. When the person was from outside of town and he was buried in an unmarked grave, I think there’s a genuine feeling there that they want him to find his family and return home, because whatever he was planning didn’t really work out.”
The film screened last October as part of the IFI’s Stranger Than Fiction festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Short Film. Sundance, however, still seemed like a long shot. “I was at my brother’s wedding saying it to someone, ‘Oh, I hope I get into Sundance,’ and then afterwards I thought, ‘What a wanker.’ By the time it screened at Stranger Than Fiction, I had completely rolled off the idea. I just thought it was very much a long-shot. And then I got an e-mail from them that it was in.”
Other directors debuting short documentaries at the festival include Academy Award-nominated Lucy Walker (Wasteland, The Crash Reel) and actor Danny Pudi (Community). “I saw that he [Pudi] was in it and he has, like, a million Twitter followers. And I was like, ‘148’.” The selection has already resulted in the film attracting notice from other film festivals worldwide. “It was kind of staggering looking at my inbox. There are just so many really, really interesting, exciting screenings going on and workshops or opportunities to meet people. Since it’s happened, other people have been contacting us, so all of a sudden festivals from across the world know that you’re in Sundance and they say, ‘Can you please send us over a copy of your documentary?’”
The question still persists, however: who was this man? It’s a subject Cassidy hopes to possibly explore in a follow-up. “We’re hoping to do a second part of it at some stage, but I think we needed to make this film first.” The rationale behind the man’s plan remains unclear, though his plan did succeed insofar as all efforts to identify him have proved fruitless thus far. “One of the things that struck me when I read the Coroner’s Report was that he went up there and he thought he could just disappear. And he nearly did, only for he washed up on the rocks.”
That a man so intent in his quest to quietly disappear would have such an impact on those he came into contact with is one of the most remarkale aspects of the story. One woman interviewed in the film went home and wrote a short story on the man after she saw him, before she became aware of the circumstances of the man’s presence on the beach. “Whatever he was doing, he was leaving this far bigger imprint than he could have imagined. In his own way, he affected people and people responded to him.”